Taking a look at the first season of the ThunderCats!


By Shawn Robare

So I recently caught the first couple episodes of the newly relaunched ThunderCats cartoon and it got me in the mood to break out the first season of the original show on DVD and watch a bunch of episodes.  Sort of like the Transformers posts last month, I figured I’d run through a bunch of scenes and aspects that I found interesting.  Before I get to that though, I wanted to say that I’m enjoying this new series even though I think it’s making some very weird choices story-wise.  For the most part I really like the changes the writers have made to the back-story, picking a relate-able age for Lion-O, ignoring the Superman origin of escaping the destruction of Thundera, and introducing some familial ties to the characters; heck, even tying in Mumm-Ra to the legend of the Eye of Thundera feels like a move in the right direction of making sense of the enormous amount of ideas presented in the original series. T here are some odd aspects to the story though, that I feel just don’t work.

First, the concept of treating “technology” like magic, as if it were some mystical unknown fairytale, is just weird and goes against the logic of what technology is.  With magic, which is heavily prevalent in the world of the ThunderCats in both series, there is no real basis for why it works or exists because it’s completely fictional and a product of fantasy.  There’s no science or reason to it, it just is.  Technology on the other hand has its roots in reality, in the simplest of tools (levers, wheels and inclined planes), and even though a graphing calculator might be light years ahead of an abacus, it’s a natural progression of the concept.  Granted the tech introduced in the show is of a more advanced and alien design than what we currently have in the world, but it’s not to say it’s stuff that out of the realm of possibility.  It’s the science fiction aspect of the series.  So to treat technology as if it were a fairy tale, a part of fantasy, though interesting, just seems like a plot device full that’s at odds with itself by the very nature of the difference between science fiction and fantasy.

The other weird plot point is that at the end of the first episode we’re left with a group of ThunderCats that are more less seeking vengeance for the destruction of their kingdom and the murder of their people and king.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good vengeance/revenge story, but I think it’s the wrong way to frame a story about heroes.  The Punisher, the Bride from Kill Bill, Lone Wolf and Cub; these characters aren’t heroes and are beyond redemption.  It’s a weird choice to frame the ThunderCats story with this sort of anger and intensity.  Not only does it possibly lead to unjustifiable actions by the “good” characters, it’s also hard to keep that intensity going over the course of an extended series.  Either every story has to tie into Mumm-Ra and the revolt of the Mutants, or there’s going to have to be a pretty darn good reason to stray from the path to have a stand alone story without it feeling like a waste of time.  The beauty of a lot of 80s era cartoons was that they were set up in such a way that you could go anywhere with the characters.

Well, anyway, that’s how the new show’s introduction came off to me.  Getting back to the original series and the point of this article though, first thing’s first, let’s get the naked cat out of the bag so to speak.  By that I mean…

Why were the ThunderCats freaking naked in the pilot episode!?!

I have absolutely no idea why Leonard Starr (the pilot’s writer) or the guys in charge of production on this series decided it would be a good idea to introduce the ThunderCats as a race of seriously naked cat people.  Not only are the characters naked, but they don’t even have any distinguishing genitalia.  They all have creepy Barbie Doll crotches and it’s just weird and disturbing.  I mean I know there is a history of anthropomorphized cartoon animals that aren’t wearing clothes (Porky Pig’s missing pants anyone), and I understand that there are plenty of mammals in nature that just have the fur on their backs, but this goes beyond that.  Way beyond that…

I mean there’s even a point where Jaga takes all the characters aside and gives them each magical clothing (and weapons) stating that “…on our planet you needed no protective clothing or special weaponry…”.  My question then is why is Jaga wearing clothes from the very beginning then?  I almost get the vibe that Jaga’s been traveling off-world or something, which he may very well have, but from a design standpoint it’s just really wonky.  Maybe it was the writer’s intent to showcase the characters getting fancy new uniforms, but then why not introduce them in some common bland tunics or something that they eventually change out of?

  

Honestly, it probably wouldn’t seem so weird if the character design on all the ThunderCats didn’t allude to the idea that their faces, chests and neither regions aren’t covered in fur. Or the fact that though naked, they’re all wearing boots.  It also doesn’t help seeing scenes with Kit and Kat, or a naked Cheetara waking up a very young, naked Lino-O.  Maybe it’s just me, but seeing naked women and adolescent young boys and girls in cartoons for kids is just wrong…

Speaking of weird decisions in the pilot episode, why did Lion-O grow to full adulthood while in the suspension capsule?

  

While preparing for the long journey to Third Earth the ThunderCats are ordered by Jaga to make the trip in a series of suspension capsules that will slow their aging and enable them to survive the trip.  He mentions offhand that some aging does occur, but when their ship crash lands on Third Earth Lion-O has grown to full adulthood and it’s treated like an anomaly.  What’s weird is that none of the other characters seem to have aged at all, including Wiley Kit and Kat who were roughly the same age as Lion-O.  Again, I have a feeling the writers and/or producers wanted the character to be like a child in a man’s body who has to learn to lead the ThunderCats, but their choice to age him up with no real reason was just weird.  How hard would it have been to write a quick segment that showed his capsule being damaged somehow?  I mentioned above that one of the cool aspects to 80s era cartoons was that they were usually set up in such a way that nothing was off the table.  The guys and gals who put this show together really took that to heart though, and these sorts of decisions, to age Lion-O, etc., really point to that freedom to try anything (even if it doesn’t make sense.)

I completely forgot that Wiley Kit and Kat were just as likely to shred some waves as the Autobots and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

One of the first things that Panthro creates for Wiley Kit & Kat are surf/hover boards to give them a little bit more mobility and something to do.  Growing up in Florida it was really hard to not be inundated with the surf and skate culture of the 80s, but I’m not sure how other areas of the country reacted to it.  After moving up to New Hampshire at the end of 1989 I was shocked by the lack of T&C, Billabong, and Maui surf and skate T-shirts at school, and I even ran into some kids that didn’t know what surfing was.  Watching these cartoons though, it’s really weird to see the surfing trend popping up so often.  It makes me wonder how many of the other series feature it?

Sometimes, life REQUIRES arm wrestling!

  

In Episode 15, The Time Capsule, Lion-O is getting a bit depressed and home sick for Thundera.  At the same time he doesn’t remember all that much about it and Jaga appears to him and mentions that part of their ship’s cargo was a Time Capsule that contained the collective knowledge of Thundera.  The ThunderCats go on a quest to seek out the capsule and Lion-O eventually finds it in a cave, though it’s now apparently been claimed by a caveman that isn’t going to give it up without a fight.  Actually, he won’t give it up unless Lion-O beats him in the most macho of all manly contests, the arm wrestling match!  It’s like watch an animated version of Over the Top, just with no estranged children in military academy, eating cigars and drinking motor oil, or big rig trucks.

The last thing I wanted to bring up today is an aspect of the series that’s very close to my heart, the amazing amount of branding in the cartoon!

Not that long ago I met a guy though my day job that used to play with the Misfits back when the band was still coming together for the first time.  I have a Misfits messenger bag, and he noticed the Crimson Ghost Skull logo and we got to talking about how amazing it is that over thirty years later there are still kids picking up stuff stamped with that image.  Heck, though Jerry Only has been trying his damnedest to keep the band going, most people really only dig the original stuff when Danzig was a part of the band, and that’s been over for about 25 years.  Yet still, that iconic skull has power.  If there’s one thing that came out of the commercial design of the 70s and 80s, this type of powerfully iconic branding was it.  The Autobot and Decpticon symbols, the Ghostbusters logo, Pac-Man, the Atari Logo, the Nike Swoosh, and the ThunderCats logo are just a few of the hundreds of popular logos that are still around to this day.  This show really took this banding to heart and you can see it in almost every aspect of the design from the vehicles…

   

…to the castles…

   

…and even the villains. Mumm-Ra’s logo, though almost as iconic as the cat’s head logo, is actually the one aspect of this sort of branding in the show that was really underused.  I’m surprised, seeing as how Mumm-Ra is basically the leader of the Mutants, that they weren’t all sporting the entwined snakes on their outfits, vehicles and gear.  This is actually something addressed in the new series that I really loved.

In particular I love how the ThunderCats logo is worked into the stories of the various episodes because of the Sword of Omens.  Whenever Lion-O is in trouble he can call upon the other ThunderCats by reciting a chant (“Thunder, Thunder, Thunder, ThunderCats HOOOOOOO!”) and then holding the sword aloft.  It then projects the ThunderCats logo into the sky so that any member of the team within sight of the symbol will feel the call and come running…

So not only is the logo plastered on every building, vehicle, article of clothing, etc, it’s even an integral part of the narrative.  In my opinion this is hands down the most brilliant use of branding in a cartoon during the 80s.

Well, come back next week for part 2 of this article where I’ll be talking a look at some of the ThunderCats characters, the crazy designs, and more.

  • http://www.brandedinthe80s.com/ Shawn Robare

    Jeff – Thanks, I’m glad you’ve been enjoying these! As far as teh technology aspect of the new Thundercats cartoon goes, I can totally see that pov. I guess where it gets weird for me is that technology is such a fundamental building block of civilization; even in medieval times people were already looking towards maned flight and other tech that wouldn’t come to pass for centuries so though there might be some aspects that seem above and beyond (lasers), there are others that don’t seem like they’d be so mythical. Besides, when you’re shooting energy out of your sword, laser guns don’t seem all that crazy. I have to agree on the growth of Lion-O. That was totally an unfortunate desire of the writers to have a childlike hero and they were too blind to think of maybe having his cryo-sleep chamber tampered with to explain it…

  • Jeff

    I stumbled upon this recently and I have been enjoying reading the reviews of cartoons. In regard to the technology as a fairy tale comment about the new thunder cats. Obviously the writers are familiar with the phrase “any technology, suffecently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic.” I am assuming that the author never heard the stories, but when the telegraph was first placed in Saudi Arabia, the people came into the telegraph office looking to meet the genie that delivered the messages. In taking the thunder cats from a space faring civilization to one that is practically medieval, they set up any technology for looking like magic. And a lot of things that technology can do, is beyond the imaginations of those that haven’t even been exposed to the basics. As for the orginal show, I always wondered why lion-o grew up and wily kit and kat did not. I can imagine that everyone else gained 10yrs. (ie aging from 25 to 35) but the twins show no sign of it. and while we are on the subject, how did he get those muscles while in stasis?

  • http://www.cavalcadeofawesome.net/ Paxton Holley

    I enjoyed ThunderCats back in the day, but I didn’t love it. I think my favorite part of the show was Mumm-Ra. He was just so BAD ASS. He was like the Emporer from ROTJ in regular form that turned into this jacked up musclebound monster. So awesome. I love his symbol and I totally agree with you Shawn, it was underutilized. I’ve seen it on t-shirts and I’ve been SORELY tempted to buy one. –Pax

  • https://bwmedia.wordpress.com Shadow Wing Tronix

    They’re still going to go after Mumm-Ra, if only because he’s evil and needs to be stopped, but payback is also in there. However, the Book has the key to how to do to Mumm-Ra what the ancient Thundercats did to him to put him back…and hopefully make it stick this time.

  • http://www.brandedinthe80s.com/ Shawn Robare

    Mark – Yeah, I had a friend point out that the second episode was all about Lion-O learning the Captain Ahab lesson from Moby Dick so that he’d cool off a bit on the revenge, and focus on finding the book of Omens and stuff. It makes sense, but then to your point, it’s sort of a waste when the vengeance angle was just set up in the first episode and they wasted 30 minutes “getting that out of his system.” I think this is a symptom of that decompressed storytelling that’s so prevalent in mainstream comics these days where we spend an awful lot of time watching stuff happen that only moves the plot forward millimeters. Again, you look at the 80s shows and they managed to get so much across in each and every episode. Sure there was usually no overarching plot to the seasons and the continuity wasn’t all that important, but at least you felt like you got somewhere in the story.

  • http://www.harmonillustration.com/ Mark Harmon

    Because of your awesome giveaway I am now looking at this show with fresh eyes as well. This show was my absolute favorite cartoon when I was a kid. Sure, GI JOE was cool, and Transformers as well, but for me, nothing is cooler than monsters and creatures. By far way cooler than humans and robots. I think I have the same feelings about the new show on Cartoon Network as well. The first episode was cool and then the second one starts out with Lion-O extremely pissed which to me, seemed to come out of no where. But I think at the end of that episode we chilled out and decided to go find the Book of Omens like they were originally supposed to do. I personally thought that the second episode in this new series was a total waste. It didn’t drive any plot and we barely learned anything. After it ended I was like, “Um, what was the point of that?” I would think that a show would try and take every episode it could to further along the story. Granted, Avatar: The Last Airbender had some “throw away” episodes, but jeez, they weren’t the SECOND ONE! Anyways, that’s my rant about the new series. Anyways, some of the points you made up there are the exact thoughts I was thinking. Especially the whole, “why were they naked” thing. It makes no sense. The plot driver with Lion-O aging but not “growing up” was something that I didn’t remember at all! Of course, the last time I saw this show was back when I was 7 or 8, so my memory of it is pretty fuzzy. Another thing I thought of was that we just have to assume that the mutants had those capsule things as well. But yeah, they should have showed SOMETHING happening to Lion-O’s capsule. HAHA. Oh well. I personally LOVE branding, in other shows and in my own properties. Maybe it subconsciously stems from these 80s cartoons. Whenever I create a story or character I design the character first, then the title/logo, and then write the story. I’m working on a personal project right now where the good guy has a logo and the bad guys have a logo and color scheme, but the story isn’t even close to done yet. Anyways, that’s my rambly two cents.

  • http://www.brandedinthe80s.com/ Shawn Robare

    Dex – Nice catch Dex. Definitely didn’t check this one thoroughly enough. A friend at work pointed out (about the new series) that he thinks the second episode essentially deals with the vengeance issue since Lion-O basically learns his lesson about obsession. I sure hope so, but the really serious tone to this new series makes me feel otherwise. I guess we’ll see…

  • http://aeiouwhy.blogspot.com/ Dex (@Dex1138)

    I don’t want to be “that guy” but the Misfits logo is based on the Crimson Ghost, not Skull. =) I caught a bit of the first original episode before the relaunch on TV and I was wondering the same thing. Why the heck are they all naked? Maybe once the new Cats meet up with Panthro he’ll set them straight on the hero’s path.

  • http://www.shezcrafti.com/ ShezCrafti

    This cartoon seems a lot sexier than I remember it.

    • http://www.brandedinthe80s.com/ Shawn Robare

      Right?! Talk about ME-OW!