Cartoon Commentary! G.I. Joe Episode 4 Duel in the Devil’s Cauldron


By Shawn Robare




One of the things that I find endlessly fascinating about cartoons in the 80s is the tonal shift that a lot of the shows took.  Throughout the 70s child advocacy groups like A.C.T. (Action for Children’s Television) were having a huge impact on the production of Saturday Morning cartoons, in particular pressuring studios to self-censor content.  So most action and adventure was stripped from new shows, and generally humor ruled the day.  In the 80s though, with a new president in the White House who had an eye on freeing up TV regulations, some studios took the opportunity to bring back action and adventure, while at the same time doing their level best to also make the shows a little more educational.  Some studios were more heavy handed than others (Filmation for instance based most episodes around a moral quandary), while others were sort of sneaky about the "good for you" content.


For the most part Sunbow was a bit sneakier about it.  Sure there were the "Knowing is half the battle…" PSAs, bust as far as the content in the actual episodes, it seemed like pretty straight forward storytelling.  This is sort of the genius of the writers, at least in terms of knocking down the wall between educational and exciting & fun television.  Instead of knocking kids over the head with a moral, they injected little subtle ideas here and there that didn’t draw all that much attention.   That was one of the first things that caught my eye while re-watching episode four of the original G.I. Joe mini series, Duel in the Devil’s Cauldron (which was originally broadcast back on September 15th, 1983.)





In the cliffhanger from the episode before, the Joes have been mostly knocked out by a noxious gas emitting from a Cobra canister that Snake Eyes used to bring back some of the eradiated crystals for the M.A.S.S. Device.   The canister was also set to explode, but with some quick thinking on Covergirl’s part, she manages to get the bomb out of the hanger they’re all in.  What caught my eye was when she breaks a beaker of water and then uses a hanky to soak up the liquid.  This makes an impromptu gas mask that she uses to keep from passing out.  Granted it’s not a huge deal, but it’s a little fact like this that’ll sit in the back of a kids brain and one day might come in handy.  I mean education doesn’t always have to be about algebra and world history.   This sort of stuff was peppered all throughout the series, and in my opinion is the way to go when educating kids with television.


Anyway, getting back to some of the visual tropes of the show, one of the main differences between the action figures and the cartoon were the weapons.  While all the toys were outfitted with a menagerie of different kinds of weapons, from handguns and shotguns, to Uzis and rocket launchers, the cartoon was a little more toned down.   Instead of realistic weaponry, most of the characters (good and evil) carry laser rifles and guns.   On the one hand it works toward the branding of the heroes (red laser fire) and villains (blue laser fire), but it also puts the show in that fantastical near-future with advanced technology.





While I don’t mind the laser fire in place of bullets, I always thought the standard issue Joe rifles were a little boring.  They didn’t have a ton of character like other weapons design, and they were typically beige with silver trim which isn’t all that visually exciting.  I always wondered why they didn’t vary the designs a little more…





So this episode has the Joes globetrotting on down to South America for their crack at the third catalytic element, the meteor chips that can only be found in the Devil’s Cauldron.  Like Kevin Cross mentions in the second half of the Saturday Supercast, this has got to be the one location that got all the child viewers excited.  What kid doesn’t love lava?  I mean seriously, what kid didn’t play the "The carpet is now lava and we have to only walk on the furniture…" game when we were young?


The other thing I dig about this sequence is that it’s another great example of backlit animation with the lava.  It’s such a great technique that’s lost in modern cartoons because most, if not all of them, are now drawn digitally.  God bless the popularity of Tron for ushering in 10 years of backlit techniques into cartoons is all I have to say…


I also love the next sequence in the cartoon, if only for its blatant commercialism.  I love G.I. Joe, and I’ll defend its merits to the death, but sometimes the product placement/30 minute commercial aspect to the show was insane.  When Stalker signals the surrender of the Joe army to Cobra via a super secret transmission, the whole thing is a ruse to buy time for the team to get to the meteor.  The gag transmission is being filmed using miniatures on a soundstage that are obviously the Hasbro toys.   I have to agree with Gung Ho, they are pretty darn cute and I for one was never a fan of electric train sets….





Talking about product placement, like the Cobra Moccasin in the second episode, I thought it was pretty interesting to see an early version of the Cobra Rattler, the jets that could take off vertically because the wings would pivot at the hinges.  It wasn’t part of the toy line yet in 1983, and they don’t quite have that nicely finished vehicle design look to them (a bit rough around the edges), but they’re certainly there in concept.  Again, I wonder if this was a case of something being developed for the show that Hasbro thought might make a cool toy.  I wonder how often that happens?





Too bad no one at Hasbro ever got a bug up their butt to design one of the awesome floating battle stations that Cobra used throughout the series…





I’m sure the logistics of creating something that would approximate that would be insane.  Even the 5-6 foot long U.S.S. Flagg was way out of proportion to the Sky Striker toy, and there was no way a kid was going to be able to pick-up a Flagg sized airship.  Still though, it was a cool vehicle reminiscent of the one S.H.E.I.L.D. used in the Marvel comics…





One thing I didn’t really care for in this episode was the retrieval of the meteor.  The sequence with the Joes using the Dragonfly helicopters and the huge magnets was kind of fun, but the idea of playing catch with a net strung between two Sky Strikers was kind of silly…





That’s alright though, because directly after we get a really fun fight scene involving a bunch of Joe strapping on their trust jetpacks and flying over to the deck of the Cobra floating battle station.  Weirdly enough, even though I didn’t care for the previous meteor catch scene, I thought the gag with Timber jumping out of a Dragonfly after Snake Eyes was kind of fun.  Silly fun, granted, but fun none-the-less.





One aspect of the advanced technology available to the Joe team that I never understood is the portable laser prison cells.   I get how it would be both visually fun, and an easy thing to write into the show when it comes to taking a bunch of Cobra Troopers captive during the show, but it seems kind of insane.   How exactly would it work?  Heck, maybe it’s just a regular portable prison that’s seriously electrified.





The last hing that sort of stuck out to me was both how well this episode ended with a riveting cliffhanger, yet at the same time it was totally ruined by the "Coming Next on…" segment.  There’s a bit where Scarlett, tied up and taken prisoner by Destro, manages to finagle her crossbow to fire with her feet, taking out the control panel of the escape ship that Destro is piloting…





The whole idea of them plummeting to their sure death was a great way to end the 4th episode…





But just as we cut to the coming attractions, there’s a scene of Scarlett running down a hallway.   How anticlimactic is that?


Tomorrow I’ll be back with some more G.I. Joe fun, a little surprise that will hopefully break-up all these Cartoon Commentary! posts.   Again, if you’re curious about listening to the Saturday Supercast where I talk about the original G.I. Joe mini series with co-hosts Jerzy Drod (of MLaT comics, the Art & Story podcast, and Sugary Serials) and Kevin Cross (of the Big Illustration Party Time podcast, not to mention a heck of an illustrator), then head on over to the podcast page at Sugary Serials.  The show spans over episodes 19 and 20, for a total of almost 3 hours of G.I. Joe conversation.



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