Beyond He-Man and She-Ra: Celebrating the Filmation Legacy
Tarzan, Space Sentinels, The New Adventures Of Batman, Flash Gordon, Bravestarr and more, as we salute Filmation...
For a child of the 1970s and 80s, nothing readied you for a half hour of quality entertainment quite like the Filmation logo. Immortalized by their phenomenal success with He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe, and its spin off She-Ra: Princess Of Power, Filmation produced some of the most fondly remembered animated series to grace the small screen.
Over a period of 26 years – in tandem with classic Doctor Who funnily enough – the company’s writers, artists, and producers delivered a staggering amount of programming. While naysayers point to Filmation’s penchant for reusing a stockpile of rotoscoped body movements, or the heavy handedness of its moralizing and educational content – children on the other hand, thrilled to an irresistible mixture of action, adventure, and superhuman heroes.
Now something of a lost art form, viewers were welcomed to these fantastical worlds each week by a smartly designed title sequence. Comprised of a monologue or narration and complimented by a soaring musical score, these sequences doubled as neat introductions for newcomers. Instantly recognizable, Filmation’s animation process may have proved lacking to some – with action sequences reduced in frame rate and long panning shots used to fill episode time – others would argue they exuded a certain amount of charm and distinctiveness.
Whatever the limits of Filmation’s animation process, they certainly compensated with an abundance of imagination. Beautifully drawn, fully-realized worlds and colorful landscapes were a key feature of any production. While the main characters were more often than not presented in peak physical condition, the company weren’t afraid to depict heroes from various ethnic backgrounds – most notably Asian and Native American.
A desire to remain US based meant budgets were tight, hence the repeated use of rotoscoped footage, and the hiring of a core cast of supremely talented voice actors. Melendy Britt, who would later voice the Princess of Power herself, lent her tones to both Batgirl and Catwoman – in The New Adventures Of Batman – followed by the infamous Princess Aura (more on her later) in the Flash Gordon series of 1979.
Alan Oppenheimer, another varied performer with multiple live-action appearances on US TV, voiced many a great villain for the company – Ming The Merciless and the iconic cackling of Skeletor among them. While the late Linda Gray – not Sue Ellen from Dallas as I believed as a child – voiced Jane in her one and only appearance in Filmation’s excellent Tarzan series, before bringing not only Teela, Evil-Lyn, and the Sorceress to life in He-Man, but also Madame Razz, Glimmer, and Shadow Weaver from She-Ra. The variety and richness of voice performances ensured characters lived long in the memory, not only enhancing the quality of proceedings but cementing iconic status for decades to come.
Creating The Filmation Generation by Lou Scheimer and Andy Mangels is available from Amazon.
Founded by Lou Scheimer, Norm Prescott and Hal Sutherland in 1962, Filmation scored many notables firsts in the world of children’s television. Tackling more serious subject matter such as child abuse and drug addiction, the company also pioneered the use of back light effects in US animation – to create their distinctive star field and vortex effects. Not content solely with cartoon serials, Filmation produced an extensive slate of live-action series too – Jason Of Star Command, The Secret Of Isis, and Space Academy among them. However, the company’s greatest triumphs remain animated, and though the pinnacle of their success came with the aforementioned He-Man and She-Ra – many a great series proceeded and followed those heroes of Eternia and Etheria.
Tarzan: Lord Of The Jungle
36 episodes (1976 – 1980)
‘’The jungle: Here I was born; and here my parents died when I was but an infant. I would have soon perished, too, had I not been found by a kindly she-ape named Kala, who adopted me as her own and taught me the ways of the wild. I learned quickly, and grew stronger each day, and now I share the friendship and trust of all jungle animals. The jungle is filled with beauty, and danger; and lost cities filled with good, and evil. This is my domain, and I protect those who come here; for I am Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle!”
Considered one of the most faithful adaptations of the Tarzan legend, this is no “Me Tarzan, you Jane!” caricature; Filmation’s take on the jungle hero depicts a surprisingly thoughtful man of action. The jungle setting is beautifully realized and our heroes’ look – based firmly upon the work of his author’s (Edgar Rice Burroughs) favorite Tarzan artist, Burne Hogarth – is both striking and graceful. Voice artist Robert Ridgely (who delivered many a memorable cameo in Blazing Saddles, Robin Hood: Men In Tights, and Boogie Nights no less) gave the lord of the jungle a commanding yet reassuring tone.
Producers Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott (those of the rotating names which appear in every title sequence) deserve credit for remaining faithful to the original source material. With Tarzan visiting several cities straight out of the novels. His sidekick, N’kima the monkey, is also drawn straight from the works of Burroughs (rather than Cheeta the chimpanzee, who was a creation of movie producers). Able to call upon almost any animal of the jungle for assistance – with his famous cry – many of the seemingly standard run of mill plots take an intriguing turn, as Tarzan chooses to flex his brain rather than brawn.
The opening episode, Tarzan And The City Of Gold, sees the ape man thrown into a gladiator style ring, before refusing to murder his fierce opponent and later gaining his freedom with the assistance of his now grateful aggressor. In the book Creating The Filmation Generation, the late Lou Scheimer explains how the company were determined to portray Tarzan as the natural hero of the novels – with no enhanced superpowers or magical abilities. Striking up a relationship with the late Burroughs’ grandson was key to Filmation obtaining the rights to the character, and though Saturday morning guidelines vetoed any real mention of the character’s tragic start in life, Scheimer was able to work the death of Tarzan’s parents into the show’s title sequence – another notable first for an animated children’s show.
This being Filmation of course, the series wasn’t afraid to delve deeper into the realms of fantasy – Tarzan And The Strange Visitors introduces extraterrestrials to the jungle – yet sees the lord of the apes gain a peaceful resolution to his skirmish with the alien invaders. Visits to Atlantis, cities of sorcery and battles with space gods ensued, though more earthly aggressors such as Vikings, Olympiads and Amazon queens continued to confound our hero.
It wasn’t until the show’s final season that this particular Tarzan found his Jane – mainly to fulfil a request from Burroughs’ estate – yet it seems a fitting way for this innocent and charming production to end. Rarely repeated, and with only a region 1 DVD release of the first season to its name, I’ve no doubt at all that if placed in front of the series today, many a child would be left captivated by the jungle man’s adventures all over again.
13 episodes (1977)
“Many centuries ago, three carefully selected young Earthlings were transported from their native lands to my faraway world. Here they were granted astounding powers, and eternal youth, then returned to Earth, their mission to watch over the human race, helping the good in it to survive and flourish.”
One of Filmation’s wackiest set ups, in an era of Silent Running, Dark Star, and Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor, Space Sentinels oozes 1970s sci-fi cool. An unknown authority selects inhabitants from various worlds – think Green Lantern Corps – bestows upon them superhuman powers and eternal youth, before returning said individuals home to defend their world. Watching over the earth from a spaceship hidden in a dormant volcano – Hercules, Mercury, and Astrea are aided by the holographic computer Sentinel One and the obligatory comedy robotic sidekick – M.O (maintenance operator).
While Hercules could be seen as a forerunner for He-Man with his immense strength and build, his comrades commendably break the mould, as Mercury (with his powers of super speed) shown to be from Asian ascent and Astera – blessed the gift of transfiguration – one of the only two female African American superheroes to appear on US Saturday morning TV of the era.
The series opened by an pitting the trio against Morpheus, a rogue sentinel intent on using the powers he was given to conquer the galaxy. Initially hampered by some overtly comic moments, the series soon began to introduce several mind-boggling concepts. The complexities of time travel were explored in the series’ second episode, as a foe from the future attempts to derail the Earth’s space exploration program, and the Sentinels find themselves banished to another dimension as the show introduces its version of everyone’s favorite Norse god, Loki.
The series’ best and most intriguing episode, largely due to the fact its main threat is a mysterious entity known only as The Force, is entitled “The Prime Sentinel.” Predating Star Wars at the time, watching the episode back now is a rather disconcerting experience due to phrases such as, “The Force must be defeated.” Thankfully one large misunderstanding, as The Force (who manifests in the form of perfect mathematical shapes) is only draining the Prime Sentinel computer system for the energy it needs to survive. Astrea quickly discovers an alternative energy source for the creature, before swiftly dispatching it off to the nearest spiral nebula.
The final episode of the series, The World Ship, bears an uncanny resemblance to the ’90s space disaster epic Armageddon. As an asteroid the size of our moon is discovered on a collision course with Earth, the Sentinels are launched into space armed with a bevy of explosives. However, upon arriving on the asteroid, the trio soon discover a catlike alien race lying dormant within the space rock. As the aliens awake and reveal their true intentions – to colonize the Earth at mankind’s expense – the Space Sentinels try to reason with the would be alien invaders. How much of a significant improvement this plot point could have made to the movie Armageddon, we will never know.
Fun, throwaway, and downright surreal at times, Space Sentinels is a wonderful relic from a golden age of TV sci-fi.
The New Adventures Of Batman
16 Episodes (1977)
Batman: “Greetings Bat-Fans, this is Batman…”
Robin: “And Robin, the boy wonder…”
Bat-Mite: “And me too, Bat-Mite…”
Batman: “Welcoming you to The New Adventures Of Batman! Watch us wage our never-ending battle of good vs. evil.”
Robin: “Ride with us as we chase the greatest array of villains the world has ever seen, proving that crime does not pay.”
Batman: “Get set for thrills and action. Join me, Batman…”
Robin: “And me, Robin, the boy wonder…”
Batgirl: “And Batgirl…”
Bat-Mite: “And me too, Bat-Mite…”
Robin: “In the super, new adventures of…”
Famously delivering the first television depiction of Bat-Mite, the Dark Knight’s very own impish superfan from an alternate dimension, Filmation were wrongly chastised by some for the creation of the character – whereas in fact he first appeared in Detective Comics #267 back in 1957.
With its thrills and action and by securing the services of Adam West and Burt Ward, this incarnation of the dynamic duo brightened many a dull Saturday morning. An immediate success, generating sales all around the world, talks began to have West and Ward reprise their roles in live action segments for an action hour rerun with Tarzan the following year. Batgirl (She-Ra‘s Melendy Britt) completed the crime fighting line up, as the trio faced the caped crusader’s most recognizable villains, mainly stylised on their 1966 TV counterparts.
With the emphasis quite firmly on action and adventure, and sporting a wonderfully redesigned Batmobile, Bat Computer, and Bat Cave – the show lives up to the promises of its opening monologue. Memorable episodes include “The Moorman” – an exciting chase through the Gotham Fairground ensues as the dynamic duo pursue their astronaut friend who, on his return to Earth, has become infected by space waves and transforms into a super-powered entity during a full moon. The extra-terrestrial villain Electro arrives on Earth in the aptly named “Bite-Sized” with plans to shrink the caped crusaders down to size. A fun take on a staple story for many a cartoon series, a miniaturized Batman and Robin catching some waves is not to be missed.
Quite why the series failed to return with new episodes, or why the live action segments never materialized, producer Lou Scheimer could not recall when it came to documenting the history of Filmation. Although only 16 episodes were made, this is another fondly remembered show and one which deserves its place in DC history.
The New Adventures Of Flash Gordon
32 Episodes (1979 – 1982)
“Blasting off on a desperate mission to save Earth from the evil plotting of the tyrannical space lord Ming the Merciless, Dr. Hans Zarkov and Dale Arden have joined me, Flash Gordon, on a fantastic journey into worlds where peril and adventure await us.”
No mean feat considering a movie version was also in production around this time, producer Lou Scheimer – a self proclaimed fan of the original Flash Gordon comics and serials – fought hard to obtain the animation rights to the legendary sci-fi hero.
Produced as a feature-length telefilm to air in a prime time slot, when those plans were altered by the network Filmation had to re-edit this more adult affair into the opening episodes of a Saturday morning cartoon serial. Due to the switch in time slot, several plot lines had to be exercised from the movie – such as Ming the Merciless assisting Adolf Hitler – and the characters dressed more appropriately for an early morning slot.
Adhering solely to the Flash Gordon serials of old, this adaptation includes all the characters you’d expect, as Flash, Dale, and Zarkov head to Mars in an attempt to thwart its impending collision with Earth, and scupper Ming’s plans for conquest. Taking an immediate shine to our hero, Ming’s daughter Princess Aura tries in vain to persuade Flash to join her on the floor of a spacecraft within the first minutes 15 minutes of screen time. Though much of the movie was re-edited, this most eyebrow-raising of seduction attempts managed to slip through the net.
With the signature educational content of other Filmation productions noticeably absent, each episode is an action packed affair – comprising of breathtaking captures, last minute escapes and full on battle sequences. As ever, Filmation strive to remain faithful to the source material, and its adherence to the Flash Gordon mythos is admirable.
Though the first season is generally considered one of Filmation’s finest adventure yarns, the show did not deliver the ratings its network had expected. Retooled into a more straight forward episodic series in its second year, and aimed a younger audience, it found itself shifted around the schedules and with declining ratings – Flash Gordon’s animated adventures soon came to an end.
One last hurrah for the show came with the release of the telefilm cut from the opening episodes in 1982, with the subtitle The Greatest Adventure Of All, this version aired to great acclaim. Proving there was life left in the animated adventures of Flash Gordon yet, Filmation’s co-producers King Features – in conjunction with Marvel – returned with another adaptation four years later, the well-received Defenders Of The Earth.
65 episodes (1987) 1 Movie (1988)
“In a distant planet and far away place,The planet New Texas floats deep in spaceSky with three suns, land of precious ore,The kerium mines brought outlaws by the score!
Then one day a lawman came,with powers of hawk, wolf, puma and bear
Protector of peace, mystic man from afar, champion of justice, Marshall BraveStarr!”
A space western which predates Firefly by almost two decades, I can’t help but wonder if Joss Whedon was a fan. Filmation’s final animated series BraveStarr may be its most outlandish, audacious and best. The company’s first truly original concept, in hindsight delivering a space adventure series with western trappings in a time of Transformers, and GoBots seemed doomed to failure. Never less than ambitious, so confident were the company in their new venture that several spin-off options were teased in the show and a prequel movie produced.
Failing to match the popularity of Masters Of The Universe, BraveStarr‘s concept may have sailed over the head of my 12 year old self at the time, but watching it back now, the show is an absolute delight. Deep in space, the planet New Texas is under the machinations of an evil spirit known only as Stampede, who with the help of his minion Tex Hex, seeks to gain control of the planet and its valuable lands – home to the precious mineral, Kerilum. Enter Marshall Bravestarr, a lawman of Native American descent, who calls upon the power of the bear, hawk, wolf and puma, to uphold law and order on New Texas.
Seeking guidance from his Shaman, Bravestarr is arguably the most fallible character Filmation brought to the screen. With emotions getting the better of him on more than one occasion, BraveStarr exhibits traits previously unseen in other series. Shown in first run syndication in the US, the producers now had significantly greater control over the content. Free of network guidelines, they tackled some serious subject matter, turning out one of the most powerful pieces of children’s television you’re likely to see.
A shockingly brave episode (The Price) tackles the devastating effects of drug addiction and makes a stunning creative choice when depicting the death of a young, male character. Even now, for a supposedly mature 42 year old father of one, this episode still packs a punch. The sight of BraveStarr checking the lifeless boy’s wrist for a pulse is quite unlike anything else I’ve ever witnessed in an animated series, this is strong and commendable stuff.
A different, altogether more rollicking adventure, the two part “Sherlock Holmes In The 23rd Century” works as a pilot for a never produced spin-off series. Opening with Holmes plunging to his death following his famous tussle with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, the Baker Street detective is promptly swallowed up by a time warp and re-emerges in a steampunk inspired London of the 23rd century. Aligning himself quickly with a Watson-esque alien doctor, it isn’t long before Holmes stumbles upon descendants of both his brother Mycroft and Detective Lestrade – before assisting BraveStarr with the case of a missing alien child.
Things become increasingly complicated when Moriarty, frozen in suspended animation for centuries, reappears intent on conquering the Earth with a futuristically styled, punk rock band. I kid you not! It is seriously bonkers, but brilliant stuff!
Available on DVD or more easily accessible via YouTube, if you only watch three episodes of BraveStarr, then make sure they are The Price and Sherlock Holmes In The 23rd Century Parts 1 and 2.
The eventual demise of Filmation is chronicled in Lou Scheimer’s book, as declining ratings, rising production costs and several high profile loses – all took their toll on the company. When a potential buyer for Filmation arose in the shape of L’Oreal – the cosmetic company looking to gain a foot hold in the entertainment business -Scheimer saw this as an ideal opportunity to keep the animation house afloat. Unfortunately, L’Oreal had other ideas and were solely concerned with obtaining the rights to the company’s extensive back catalogue, before ceasing any further productions.
In later years, as with all goods things created out of love and with passion, the children who had taken those Filmation characters to their hearts began to share the adventures with offspring of their own. Thankfully, with He-Man in particular experiencing a renaissance thanks to the advent of DVD, Scheimer was able to witness a whole new generation of children thrill to the works of Filmation.
Asked to name a great American animation house, I’d wager Disney, Pixar and Hanna-Barbara would top the majority of people’s lists. Yet I’d argue the case for Filmation to be mentioned in the same breath as its illustrious colleagues. While heavily criticized at the time for supposed ideals of strength and violence, re-evaluating the productions today reveals an extra layer to their adventures. Many of the characters, He-Man included, suffer from flaws and have to cope with the repercussions of their actions. Hidden beneath all the thrills and spills, are underlying values of hope, acceptance and forgiveness.
Ultimately those half hours of animated action, while a little heavy-handed in their execution, prompted everyone of us to do the right thing somewhere along our way. A fitting legacy for the mavericks of Filmation, and its generation, to leave behind.