Cartoon Commentary, a look at the 1st episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe!


By Shawn Robare

A quick note on the organization of the Cartoon Commentary! columns here at Branded in the 80s.  I’ve been slowly tweaking the tags and archiving of some of the sections on the site for awhile to try and make this beast a little easier to navigate (since the engine Branded is built on doesn’t support a lot of the nicer things like next page functionality, or multiple tags.)  Anyway, I wanted to take a second and point to a new portal page I set up for Cartoon Commentary! which divides the articles I’ve written by cartoon series as well as individual posts.  By clicking on the banner above, or the one in the sidebar to the left you can reach the portal page where you can choose to view all posts on a particular series or the specific episodes from that series.  It should make navigating the site easier so you wouldn’t have to load every single Commentary post on one page.  Next up, wrangling the best that is Peel Here, but that’s for another day…

Anyway, in honor of the release of episode 21 of the Saturday Supercast (where I and co-hosts Kevin Cross and Jerzy Drozd deconstruct the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon series) I thought I’d take a closer look at the first broadcast episode of He-Man, the Robby London penned Diamond Ray of Disappearance which had its debut on September 5th, 1983.

As we mentioned in episode 21 of the Supercast, Diamond Ray of Disappearance does a pretty good job of setting the stage for the Masters of the Universe series.  Though it’s not an origin episode (not many 80s cartoons had the foresight to set up a continuity), it does spend some time introducing a lot of the main characters that populate the world of Eternia, as well as giving a pretty good overview of what He-Man is capable of.   One subtle aspect to this episode’s introductory nature is the opening title card screen that was chosen for this first episode, a shot from space of the planet and its main continents.  You can get a general gist of the main body of lush green jungle-like land, with the icy mountains to the north, a treacherous desert to the south and to the east, which separates the peaceful region with the fire and brimstone of the region that Skeletor overseas to the far east.

As far as the episode proper, it opens on a shot of the imposing Snake Mountain, which again is a subtle way of starting off the series by introducing the main struggle.  I mean, we’re already watching a show called He-Man, and in the opening credits we get the point by point on Adam and his quest, so it makes sense to get into the nitty gritty with Skeletor summoning his minions.  What I really dig about this sequence is that it does a fairly good job of setting the tone for some of the dark fantasy that makes up the periphery of the show.   Between Snake Mountain, and the various spikes and skeletal accoutrements that make up the décor, it sets a pretty creepy tone for a kids show.   Some of the imagery is downright Giger-esque in design, and Skeletor’s throne of bone is only slightly removed from the seriously f-ed up human and animal bone furniture in the Texas chainsaw Massacre flick (or for that matter TCM’s real world influences of Ed Gein and Ilse Koch.)  Granted skeletal imagery and evil in fantasy worlds sort of go hand in hand and could be viewed as pretty tame, but it does has some real world connotations that can get pretty heady, especially for kids.  I just think it was a brave move on Filmation’s part.

As Skeletor calls his henchmen to his side to explain his nefarious plot with the Diamond Ray, I always thought it was pretty hilarious that he calls Merman who just happens to be in the middle of wrestling a huge aquatic monster…

Another thing that jumped out at me in this opening sequence is some of the Filmation visual trademarks that really define the look and feel of the cartoon.  Because of the limited budget the studio had to produce 65 syndicated episodes of He-Man, there was a lot of limited animation and an extensive collection of stock sequences were devised, so that each episode’s new animation burden could be whittled away.  One of these stock sequences features Skeletor in a fit of megalomaniacal fist pumping.   It really is sort of a strange shot, as the edit sort of cuts to an aside soliloquy featuring a mimed or laughing punctuation from the evil leader.

I also thought it was interesting in the first battle sequence that both factions have their own Sky Sleds, though in slightly differing colors…

As a kid I never thought twice about this, but from the perspective of a grown man this seems very odd.   I mean I just always sort of thought that each side designed and constructed their own vehicles.  I know Man-At-Arms is always building and tinkering for the good guys.  Maybe Tri-Klops is doing the same for Skeletor? Anyway, because their both using the same sleds (well except that the evil ones have fangs and the good have molded ears on the gargoyle head that acts as a ram), it gives the impression that there is a third party out there designing vehicles and weaponry for the battle waging across Eternia.

Also, a quick note on Trap Jaw’s character design from toy to cartoon.   I thought it was cute that Filmation decided to keep his little hook/eyelet on the top of his helmet, a feature from the toy that let him slide down a zip-line, but in the show is just ornamental.  I’ve talked before about the differences in cartoon and toy design, and it’s always fun to see stuff that should be exclusive to the toys end up in either packaging art or the final cartoon versions.   I mean typically these little things don’t have to translate from toy design to other media, I mean not that many kids thought too hard about what happens to Optimus Prime’s trailer section when he transforms in the show…

It’s also fun to see a little bit of Star Wars influence on the cartoon.   I mean it came out right in the middle of the hype for Return of the Jedi, so it’s not surprising, but even so it’s fun to see Man-At-Arms wielding a makeshift lightsaber…

I also love the inclusion of Skeletor’s Battle Robots to the show’s list of villains.  Because Lou Scheimer and Hal Sutherland had such strong ideas on the virtual non-violence in the action of the He-Man cartoon, these robots become yet another in a very long line of violence-friendly punching bags…

There was also a scene with the Sorceress’ magic mirror that I thought was neat for a couple of reasons.   One, there is another Filmation visual, a shot framed by He-Man’s feet in the foreground which is just really dynamic.   You see this a lot in Filmation’s cartoon work, these interesting shot set-ups and uber weird camera angles (either extreme worm’s-eye-view or security camera, high up in a corner shots.)   Secondly we get to see the Filmation designer’s mind’s eye view of what it would look like inside this magical universe, which is apparently a world of Atari?!?

The last thing that really jumped out at me in this episode (that we don’t cover in episode 21 of the Saturday Supercast) is an early Orko sequence that has him getting in on the final battle a bit.  There are a lot of character match-ups in this series and this episode in particular.   In fact the set of evil and good characters is almost symmetrical.   He-Man offsets Skeletor, Evil-Lyn the Sorceress, Man-At-Arms and Tri-Klops, Ram-Man and Beastman, Stratos and Trap Jaw, Man-E-Faces and Merman, not to mention Cringer/Battle Cat and Panthor.  Orko though is sort of the odd man out.  There really isn’t a reoccurring character that fits Orko’s bill on the evil side, his bumbling ways are only sort of echoed in Merman and Beastman.  He’s more of an in for the children as viewers, giving them a character to latch onto, one who is a guide to the world of Eternia.

So it’s strange to see him step into the battle at the end of the episode and spin Tri-Klops’ head silly.   It’s sort of out-of-character for Orko, but fun none-the-less.

Again, to listen to Jerzy, Kevin and I wax nostalgic on this episode of He-Man you can download Episode 21 of the Saturday Supercast from the Sugary Serials site (or directly here), or you can subscribe to the show through iTunes.   We’re really proud of how the podcast is developing so far and we can’t wait to tackle more cartoons in future episodes.  We’ve got a lot of big plans…

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  • Paxton Holley

    Hey Shawn, I finished you guys’ two part GI Joe podcast. Loved it. You covered all the interesting aspects of the show. I have not checked out GI Joe Resolute yet, but I hear things (like it’s not good). I thought you guys were a little hard on the GI Joe Rise of Cobra trailer. Did you get a chance to see it? I went in thinking it was going to be awful and I thought it was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed what they did with it. However, I agree with you, we don’t need “”the origin story”". They could’ve started off in the middle of a conflict and been fine. I too am tired of the “”origin story”" movies for every TV show/comic movie that’s released. We don’t need them. I’ve downloaded the first He-Man podcast. I’ll listen to it probably next week. I plan on watching the He-Man episodes this weekend.