The underrated cartoons of the 80s

Odd List Mark Coupe 11 Aug 2011 - 14:04

The 80s. A time of toys and tie-in cartoons. Mark lists five underrated animated shows from a classic era of kid's TV...

The late 80s were a golden time for kids’ TV. The booming toy market had taken the lessons of Star Wars to heart, and decided that the best way to advertise their wares was in a television series, to appeal to the same children that then wanted to reenact the episodes in their own bedrooms.

Often, the stories themselves were as much television adverts as the real ones that filled the commercial breaks in between. Not every cartoon series had a tie-in toy line (or should that be the other way round?), but the same style of adventure and ensemble characters was common to most cartoons aimed primarily at young boys during the 80s.

In amongst all the well-known cartoons, such as M.A.S.K and The Real Ghostbusters, however, there were a few lesser-known gems, some which had an associated toy line, and some that didn’t. For those thirty-somethings that begged their parents for the latest release from Mattel or Hasbro after being glued to Saturday morning TV with their soggy toast, here are five of the ones you may have forgotten.

Pole Position

Okay, just to throw off my whole argument about kids cartoons and toys, here was a show that didn’t have a toy line at all. It was, however, based on the Atari videogame of the same name, although strangely, didn’t have any connection with it all apart from the name.

Although it had no toy line, it did, along with M.A.S.K, have one of the greatest theme tunes of all time. One thing the 80s did unashamedly well was produce a rollicking good theme.

Pole Position was the story of a brother and sister who were able to combine the twin careers of stunt racing and crime fighting. Their cars were controlled by that other 80s staple – talking computers with personalities, which enabled the vehicles to turn into planes or jet skis. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, eat your heart out.

Pole Position consisted of just thirteen episodes, broadcast initially in 1984 in the USA, and then shown on Children’s BBC and Going Live in the 80s. These were repeated several times into the early 90s.

Centurions

One thing kids in the 80s did a lot was watch videos. You youngsters don’t know what you’re missing, with your perfect quality DVDs and Blu-rays – part of the fun of watching the same video over and over again was the way the sound and pictures would slightly stretch after about a hundred viewings.

The Video Collection was one of the biggest ranges at the time (remember the jingle?), and a lot of my experiences of cartoons back then were through either my own videos, or watching others at a friend’s house. These were the days before satellite broadcasters had hours to fill on children’s broadcasting channels, and the thought of a single channel showing more than an hour or two of cartoons before Newsround every day was unimaginable.

Centurions was one of those series, although I may be wrong about this – I can never remember watching it on television, but instead saw a few episodes on video. Quite clearly developed in order to sell a toy range, the series featured a team of air, land and sea operations experts, who could attach a sort of light mech suit onto themselves tailored to the relevant danger they were in (and, of course, which suit attachment the toy makers wanted to sell).

This being the 80s, they don’t just slip into the bionic workwear in a changing room. They need to undergo a slow-motion attachment sequence. “Man and machine: power extreme!”

As cheesy as this series may seem now, there is one particular episode which stands out as something impressive for the time, a pretty straight kid friendly adaptation of Alien. Without the Chest Burster, though, obviously.

Inhumanoids

This series had a lot in common with Centurions. They both began with a mini-series that expanded into a full, multiple story series (or two in Centurions’ case), and both also had some fairly adult aspects compared to the kids shows that had come before them.

The Inhumanoids mini-series was first shown in America, and was broken down into seven minute episodes, which, along with other series like Jem and Robotix, made up a compilation programme. The whole movie-length story was then released on video, which was again how I think I came into contact with it.

The mini-series beginning the Inhumanoids saga introduces us to a team of scientists, all experts in geological research. Not quite the stuff an exciting children’s adventure show or toy line is made from, you may think. But then you add the monsters. If ever a kids cartoon could be described as Lovecraftian, Inhumanoids is your show.

Ancient monsters imprisoned in the centre of the Earth aeons ago, the baddies certainly eclipsed the baldy heroes of the piece. D’Compose was a skeletal giant who could turn people into zombies, while Tendril was a plant creature that could duplicate itself when pieces of its body were hacked off. And then there was the big bad, the fireball-spitting Metlar.

If you haven’t seen it yet, I would heartily recommend that you obtain and watch at least the opening mini-series, The Evil That Lies Within. Another awesome 80s theme tune hardly prepares you for a film which is at times more like a decent anime movie than simple kid’s fare.

Dino-Riders

If ever there was a debate regarding the relationship between kid’s TV and toy sales, Dino-Riders would surely finish it. A series that was developed with the sole intention of selling action figures, it doesn’t even try to hide its raison d’etre when weaving its clearly Transformers-inspired tale of warring aliens crash-landing on primitive earth.

Stranded millions of miles from home, the shipwrecked Valorians and Rulons would surely work together to get home, right? Or at least make the best of their new surroundings? No, clearly the sensible option is to enslave dinosaurs and to fit them out with futuristic weaponry for use as walking battle machines. Anyone want to buy a heavily-armed stegosaurus?

Apparently, the toy line itself came about because Tyco had purchased a number of cheap plastic dinosaur toys, and knew the quickest way to a boy’s heart (and pocket money) was to strap a ruddy great rocket launcher to its back. Good work, Tyco.

Visionaries

If dinosaurs with guns failed to set the toy and gaming world alight, then the 80s had one more trick up its shell suit sleeves – holograms. Think of how popular 3D is now, then times it by Keith Chegwin, and lo and behold, you may understand just how exciting a hologram was to an 80s child.

There were actually two boy’s toy lines centred around the idea of using holograms on an action figure – the Super Naturals, which were gothic horror-inspired figures with holographic images of mummies or werewolves enclosed within them, and the Visionaries, which were medieval-type space knights with holograms on their shields. Sadly, only one of them got a televised toy commercial – sorry, TV series.

The plot of Visionaries: Knights Of The Magical Light centred on the planet of Prysmos, a place where magic has overtaken science, and where a wizard grants both the good Spectral Knights and the bad Darkling Lords the ability to change into whichever animal is shown on their shield. Pity the poor guy who gets a beetle. Your special power is… rolling poo into a big ball.

Hopefully, you enjoyed that little voyage back to the time when you used to run home from school with your Terrahawks lunchbox clasped in your hands so you didn’t miss Bananaman, or sat inches away from your massive square television on Saturday morning with your bowl of Coco Pops trying not to wake your parents.

Let me know if I’ve missed anything about the TV shows I’ve talked about, or if you think any other 80s forgotten classic deserves a mention. Maybe we can play swapsies?

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