ThunderCats is, to mix my animal metaphors, an odd duck. I’ve read the surprisingly extensive series bible, and never have I seen such an exhaustive outline of a fictional world and its denizens brought to life in such a sloppy, haphazard way. These folks had 65 episodes to build a rich fantasy world, and in the end that overall mythology ends up remaining fairly shallow. It’s a good thing the characters were so memorable and their adventures were so entertaining.
Well, at least some of them were.
ThunderCats seems to be as beloved in the memories of those who grew up with it as it is disappointing to those same people upon actually rewatching it as teens or adults. On the whole, it’s not very good. The writing is all over the place, and the voice acting yo-yos back and forth from fantastic to horrendous.
I will say this, though…
While ThunderCats doesn’t live up to my rose-colored childhood memories, it is way better than I remember it being when I rewatched as a teenager. Maybe it’s because I got all that disappointment out of my system and can now appreciate the show for what it is, but in sober judgment I’ve found that, while most episodes are kind of bad or even flat-out boring, every fifth or sixth episode hits the mark exquisitely as a fun, well-written, and entertaining half-hour of animation. So, to spare you the time and pain of slogging through all the duds, here’s a list of the must-see eps from that 65-episode first season, the ones that really capture the spirit of the show at its best.
EXODUS (Season 1, Episode 1)
Because it’s the pilot. Because it’s a fun standalone science fiction short that manages to successfully introduce and properly characterize 11 characters in roughly 22 minutes. But let’s be honest. Because it’s the episode of ThunderCats where everyone is naked, an episode that likely played a not-small role in creating a generation of furries.
Seriously, though, the whole naked thing is not that big a deal and is certainly not of interest because it’s erotic (at least not to me, feel free to dissent in the comments), but because it’s is utterly amazing that the show got away with having all the main character buck-ass nude in the debut episode of an animated children’s show. Yeah, they’re cats and we didn’t see any genitals, but like… they’re actually naked. Jaga says so. And all I can say is that the 80s were a very different time, a time when paranoid, killjoy parents and media watchdog groups insisted upon groupthink and ham-fisted “just say no” and stranger danger episodes, but bare breasts on a syndicated kids’ show were fine. Quite a far cry from today. The times, they have a-changed.
THE UNHOLY ALLIANCE (Season 1, Episode 2)
The Mutants (I always hated that they were called that. Far as I can tell they didn’t mutate from animals or humans into the humanoid hybrids they are; they’re just other species like the Thunderians) lose their exit strategy when the desert swallows their spacecraft, and are forced to forge an alliance with Mumm-Ra, the devil priest of Third Earth.
I mean, come on. It’s the first Mumm-Ra episode. “Exodus” is a fantastic prologue, but this episode sets the tone for the rest of the series, certainly the dynamics of the first season. It’s a must-see.
BERBILS (Season 1, Episode 3)
The ThunderCats meet their new neighbors, a cute, peaceful species that seems robotic, but may not be because they have children and agriculture. Let’s face it, the Berbils were basically cutesy, pacifist Ewoks, but it’s kind of hard not to like them. They’re the perfect neighbors; agreeable, low-maintenance, and always willing to lend a hand. I’ve never had neighbors that good (I almost just typed that as neighbots, and I’m now convinced this easy-to-make error is how the writers got the idea to make the Berbils robotic, because there is nothing about it in the series bible).
This episode isn’t earth-shattering or anything, but it does introduce the Berbils as well as establish how the ThunderCats are going to fit into this new world and interact with its denizens. It’s cute and worth a watch.
THE SLAVES OF CASTLE PLUN-DARR (Season 1, Episode 4)
The Mutants enslave the docile Brutemen (no Brutewomen? Is there no sexual dimorphism in this species or does the Mutants’ evil have some standards?) to construct their new lair, Castle Plun-Darr. There are some aspects of this episode that did not age well. Given that the most prominent conception of slavery in American culture is that of pre-Civil War Black people and given certain racist stereotypes about the intelligence of people of color (and, once we factor in the effects of warp gas, stereotypes about an inclination toward rage and violence)… making the people whom the Mutants enslaved less evolved intellectually was not the best idea, and it can be cringeworthy to watch… as can some of the hammiest dialogue in the series.
That said, this episode really gives each character a moment to shine in the action department, introduces some of the character themes in the score that we came to love, and provides a great thematic contrast between how the Mutants built their new home (slave labor) and how the ThunderCats built theirs (enlisting the aid of new neighbors through goodwill and social symbiosis). Warts and all, you can’t miss this one.
TROUBLE WITH TIME (Season 1, Episode 7)
Here’s the thing… you crash land on a planet and start attracting all kinds of trouble, and you know what? Not everyone’s going to like you.
This episode introduces us to the Warrior Maidens, who did not get nearly enough screentime in this series. The actual plot of the episode (Tygra wanders into a cave that prematurely ages him, and a cure must be found to restore his youth before he dies) is decent. It’s not great, but it hits the spot.
No, what makes this episode awesome is that the Warrior Maidens totally hold the ThunderCats accountable for showing up on their turf and making their lives difficult, and when the ThunderCats explain that they’re peaceful, meant no harm, and are not allied with the Mutants at all, the Warrior Maidens believe them… and still don’t give half a fuck, because good, evil, or indifferent, the ThunderCats still dragged their problems into the Warrior Maidens’ backyard. Sure, by the end of the episode the two factions are allies, but it’s kind of great that not all people on Third Earth are the Berbils. Sometimes, you have to earn people’s trust and cooperation, even when you’re both the good guys.
Also, this episode was feminist as fuck without hitting you over the head with it, which is refreshing for ThunderCats, a show not known for its subtlety. The Warrior Maidens aren’t just good with their weapons. Their intelligence and experience is an asset. Jaga doesn’t have to deliver some ham-fisted lecture to Lion-O about how women are just as strong as men. He just says, “Listen, kid. This is Willa’s home. She knows this turf way better than you. It would be really smart of you to listen to her and take her advice. Also, you’re neurologically 12 years old.”
Okay, he didn’t say that last part, but you know he was thinking it.
THE TOWER OF TRAPS (Season 1, Episode 8)
So, the ThunderKittens are out exploring and find this tower in the middle of forest. When WilyKat goes missing, WilyKit and Lion-O brave the tower to find him, but it turns out to be a deadly funhouse of traps.
In rewatching the entire series in preparation for this article, I have come to realize just how many episodes of this show I have either never seen or have completely forgotten. This episode has always stuck in my memory. Partially because I really like WilyKit, and any time she gets a moment in the sun I’m all over it, but also because it’s just a lot of fun. The world-building for Third Earth is admittedly kind of sloppy. Tolkien or Martin or even Rowling, these guys were not. They played it pretty fast and loose, but the upside of that is that on Third Earth, you could find just about anything.
An entire tower of the third act of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Done. The traps were interesting and varied, there was a fun little twist at the end, gargoyles came to life, which is generally a winning strategy, especially in syndicated animation. And in a series where entire episodes are just 2/3 wheel-spinning, this one is full of twists and turns, setbacks and course-corrections. It’s a fun, filling meal.
THE GARDEN OF DELIGHTS (Season 1, Episode 9)
AKA the episode where Tygra’s trippin’ balls!
Tygra is tricked by Mumm-Ra posing as a glittering fairy named Silky… no, seriously… into getting addicted to a hallucinogenic fruit. Well, it’s was the 80s, after all. Wouldn’t be a kids’ show without the obligatory Just Say No episode. As far as they go, though, this one ain’t bad.
It’s nice that they picked Tygra, and not Lion-O, who sole function in the show sometimes seemed to be doing stupid shit so the audience could learn through his mistakes, or the Thunderkittens to be the one to get duped into addiction, especially since Tygra’s primary defining characteristics are integrity and mental strength. Of course, the show is tackling the simplistic, bogeyman version of addiction that never actually existed, rather than the actual, emotionally and socially complex behavior—and in many cases, disease—it really is. But how much could we really expect?
It’s also worth noting that Mumm-Ra is totally comfortable with flirting with and seducing Tygra in his Silky disguise. I’m starting to wonder if all shapeshifters eventually just end up pansexual. I mean, honestly, if you could be anyone at anytime, open to infinite experiences, after a while sexual hang-ups would probably start to seem kind of silly.
THE GHOST WARRIOR (Season 1, Episode 11)
Grune the Destroyer, a Thunderian warrior from Jaga’s past, haunts the ThunderCats.
How exactly does one fight a ghost? Well, with another one.
As one of the few episodes where Jaga not only takes an active role, rather than just Obi-Wanning at Lion-O, but also gets some character development, it’s nearly impossible to make an argument for skipping this one. If nothing else, it ends with a battle in the sky between two giant ghosts. What’s not to love there?
THE DOOMGAZE (Season 1, Episode 12)
Mumm-Ra enlists the help of a hypnotic enchantress to disarm the ThunderCats so that he can finally be rid of them.
You know, for all of its faults, all the cheese and mediocre writing, ThunderCats was shockingly progressive for its time, especially in the realm of female representation. Cheetara was never considered anything less than the men on the team, and got just as many spotlight episodes. Of the young twins, WilyKit was the daredevil. The Warrior Maidens. Mandora, a female space cop. I would have loved to have seen a female Mutant, but you can’t have everything. I can at least be sure that Monkian would have respected the shit out of her, because it’s canon that he frowns upon sexism.
So, how surprised am I not that this show has an entire episode about how men get distracted by pussy (there’s some kind of cat joke in there somewhere but I’m not spelunking for it) to the point that they’ll endanger their own lives, requiring a woman to come in and save the day. I mean, seriously. That is perfect.
Though it does make me wonder how things would have played out if any of the ThunderCats were gay. Like, what if Cheetara were a lesbian? Would she have fallen under the spell too? Would one of the guys be immune? Does Ta-She’s doomgaze work on anyone with gynophilic tendencies or is this strictly a male/female thing regardless? Like, would some ThunderQueen see her and not lust for her but fall under her thrall like Lady Gaga at a Glee convention?
LORD OF THE SNOWS (Season 1, Episode 13)
Lion-O goes to Hook Mountain to retrieve a meteorite that contains Thundrillium, an element necessary for the production of fuel for the ThunderCats’, well, everything.
I’m always a fan of when shows address the everyday logistics of how their world works. The Cats Lair, the Thundertank, all that stuff doesn’t power itself, and when the ThunderCats came to Third Earth, they only had some much Thundrillium in supply. So either they find more or they’re walking. I don’t know what to do with Snowman. He’s not a particularly interesting character, and I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but I’m fairly certain he offends someone somewhere.
But, a giant snow lion named SnowMeow. Oh, fuck yeah. Sign me up for that.
THE TIME CAPSULE (Season 1, Episode 15)
Okay, so it’s no secret I’m all about the internal mythology of stories. World-building and backstory are like porn to me, so an episode openly addressing the fact that Lion-O is still mentally twelve years old despite his adult body, and that he missed several years of growing up, experiences he’ll never have because those years are gone and the world in which he’d have them is now a cloud of debris… that’s just awesome.
As a bonus, we actually get a flashback to Thundera just before the opening shot of the pilot. The McGuffin of the episode is a time capsule that contains the recorded history of Thundera all the way up to the planet’s destruction.
This hot little item and Lion-O’s emotional journey are far more interesting than anything that actually happens in the course of its retrieval. He acquires it by winning an arm wrestle with a caveman, for fuck’s sake. Besides the risk already being incredibly low, the lip-service morality of him not just taking it is preposterous. It’s his property. It’s not stealing if you forcibly take something that belongs to you. No honor was at stake here.
MONGOR (Season 1, Episode 19)
So, it’s not exactly that WilyKit and WilyKat break open a seal and release the Devil. There’s certainly enough plausible deniability at play to explain how the writers and design team got this one past the censors… in the 80s… but holy shit! WILYKIT AND WILYKAT BROKE OPEN A SEAL AND RELEASED THE DEVIL! I mean, Mongor’s not literally the Devil, but just about as much Satanic imagery was shoved into his character design and characterization as possible. I mean, it’s not subtle. He’s a Sigil of Baphomet brought to life. Throw in a dash of Freddy Krueger, what with how Mongor feeds on fear, and you’ve got yourself some Grade-A nightmare fuel.
This episode legit terrified me as a kid, and I didn’t even know why. It just tapped into some primal terror of the collective unconscious. I never forgot it. How could I? It’s about a Sigil of Baphomet come to life to terrorize children.
Between this and the Bogeyman episode of The Real Ghostbusters, I knew fear as a child. But honestly, even if this episode doesn’t creep you out now or didn’t scare you then, it’s still worth it just to marvel at how much these writers got past the radar with this one. It’s honestly amazing.
RETURN TO THUNDERA (Season 1, Episode 20)
Okay, so the A-Story here—a giant robot with an oddly-placed and seemingly functionless spike assaulting the Cats Lair—is boring as shit.
What really matters is Lion-O’s story. The time capsule flings him through time and space to Thundera on the day before its destruction. It’s a little weird how Lion-O talks about Thundera and everything from his childhood like he was too young to remember it; he was twelve. Yeah, he looks like an adult now, but mentally, this was like six months ago for him. Still it’s a tasty bit of world-building and backstory. We get to meet Lion-O’s father, Claudus (Lion-O clearly got his mother’s coloring), who it appears lost his sight fighting the armies of Plun-darr. And it turns out he actually encountered none other than Slithe and Vultureman.
Yeah, Lion-O getting the plans for the War-bot from his dad is a little too convenient, and there are some issues with continuity and temporal mechanics, but the only real sin of this episode is that there was a lot of unexplored potential to Claudus, both in his characterization and his interaction with Lion-O. Still, it does deepen the mythology of the series, and for that alone, it’s worth a watch.
THE ASTRAL PRISON (Season 1, Episode 22)
New locations? Check. Mumm-Ra in drag? Check. Rankin-Bass getting’ all Rankin-Bassy with their art? Ho yeah.
But what really makes this episode sing is that, as with “Grune the Destroyer,” Jaga gets to do something other than pop in for thirty seconds and deliver his best Obi-Wan impression. Nope. He’s in need of an astral jailbreak.
Lion-O has to go to the Astral Plane and, for once, aid Jaga in what ends up being a rather fun inversion of their dynamic. Yeah, there are plot holes you can drive a Mack truck through—if Mumm-Ra could just banish Lion-O to the Astral Plane, why not just do it any old time… and why the disguise as the Nether Witch… oh, hell. Whatever, Mumm-Ra. We should all be so secure in our gender identity—but really, who cares? This is ThunderCats! Just enjoy the ride. Logic and narrative cohesion are not why we bought the tickets, okay?
LION-O’S ANOINTMENT – FIRST DAY: THE TRIAL OF STRENGTH (Season 1, Episode 37)
Every episode of this five-parter is a treat. It’s great character building for Lion-O to show how much skill he’s acquired since the pilot and actually challenges his claim to the throne.
This first part is like a crazy obstacle course, and it’s loads of fun to watch Lion-O go through it. The only real weaknesses of this episode are that most of his challenges have very little to do with strength and more to do with problem-solving, which would be more apropos to the Trial of Cunning or the Trial of Mind Power, and the one challenge that does pertain to physical strength… he never actually passes.
Panthro’s sentiment that tradition and ceremony, while all well and good, are not worth dying over is a great message, but at the end of the day Lion-O had to best Panthro in combat and he didn’t. Sure, he’d never beat him out in brute strength, but he could have kept to dodging and evading, slowly wearing Panthro down until it was a fairer fight. It’s a minor complaint, though. This is a good one.
LION-O’S ANOINTMENT – SECOND DAY: THE TRIAL OF SPEED (Season 1, Episode 42)
This episode succeeds in the one area the previous one fell short. Like Panthro, Cheetara has a specialized “power” the other ThunderCats don’t have, one that Lion-O can’t beat directly and for which he must compensate to challenge. In this instance, he can never beat Cheetara in a straight race, but he can take a shorter (if more difficult and dangerous) route to the finish line so that by the time their routes knit together again, Cheetara will have spent all her energy and thus be beatable in that last leg.
As expected, some Mutant shenanigans get in the way, but it only makes the race more interesting. Also, a brief appearance of the Warrior Maidens affords Willa the opportunity to comment on how a man being too proud to accept help from a woman is weird and fucking stupid. Preach, sister.
TURMAGAR THE TUSKA (Season 1, Episode 45)
Lion-O’s Anointment was designed to air over five consecutive weekdays, but for some reason it didn’t, and of all the episodes that aired between each installment, the only one really worth it was “Turmagar the Tuska.” We meet an endearing new character and get to see Tuskania, an area of Third Earth we’ve never seen before. Despite how diverse the terrain is and how “extra” the fantasy elements are, we really only ever see the area within a certain radius of the Cats Lair.
In this episode we get to really venture out from the epicenter of the story and see something new. Also, a deadly siren attempts to mate with/eat Tygra, and the Black Widow Shark attempts to mate with/eat the ThunderTank, so… that happened. But then there’s also this giant cyborg laser beast. Really. Not to mention some low-key environmentalism in a show not exactly noted for its subtlety half a decade before Captain Planet would have us all groaning at its graceless preaching.
This episode has so many moving parts, all of them entertaining, and just when you think you’ve got it figured out it throws you another curve ball, making it a must-see.
LION-O’S ANOINTMENT – THIRD DAY: THE TRIAL OF CUNNING (Season 1, Episode 46)
When you get an episode where WilyKat and WilyKit are actually competent and useful, rather than just the kid sidekicks, you’re in for a treat, because when utilized well, they’re incredibly fun to watch. They truly are cunning and crafty, and outwitting them with all their parlor tricks and traps and misdirection is a real accomplishment. The fact that this is the most direct victory Lion-O scores against any of the other ThunderCats all the more satisfying. There are ways around strength or speed, but cunning is cunning, and you have it or you don’t.
There’s also a nice build from “The Trial of Speed” of the mutants becoming hip to what’s going on and using it to attempt to overpower the ThunderCats. Not to mention some more world-building thrown in with an entire race of Gollumesque bookworms living in the caves. Dig this shit!
LION-O’S ANOINTMENT – FOURTH DAY: THE TRIAL OF MIND POWER (Season 1, Episode 50)
The trial itself isn’t particularly interesting, nor is Lion-O’s victory, but this episode proves to be a marvelous character study for Tygra as we not only learn about powers we didn’t know he had, but that they’re unique to the Tiger Clan. Seeing Tygra get a little tricksy is a refreshing change of pace, considering what a straight arrow he is most of the time.
Truthfully, this episode has a little too much thematic crossover with “The Trial of Cunning” (I think an examination of how instinct, rather than being separate from the mind, is actually part of it and should be honed for when your eyes betray you) but not enough to really bring it down. Also, there is never too much Snow Meow.
LION-O’S ANOINTMENT – FIFTH DAY: THE TRIAL OF EVIL (Season 1, Episode 61)
Aside from a brief bit of footage in “The Unholy Alliance,” we really only ever see the exterior of the Black Pyramid and the inside of Mumm-Ra’s chamber.
In this episode, we don’t see much more of the pyramid itself, but do get a look at the back way in through tunnels, caves, and secret chambers probably made by the DESTROYED CIVILIZATION within visual range of the Pyramid. Shame on the writers for teasing us with this and never following through on it. Like… what happened to these people? Were they the Egyptians we know or were they some neo-Egyptian civilization that formed after whatever cataclysm transformed our Earth into Third Earth? What about Maftet who guarded the treasure chamber? What’s his deal? Yeah, fine, Lion-O fights Mumm-Ra. Whatever. That happens all the time. This would have been the perfect moment for some Mumm-Ra backstory. Sadly, there’s none, but watch it anyway.
Also… why this episode wasn’t positioned as the season finale is beyond me.
THE TROUBLE WITH THUNDERKITTENS (Season 1, Episode 62)
I can’t even pretend this episode has any nutritional value, but it’s a fun romp that has the underestimated kids trying to prove themselves, and that’s always a good time. WilyKat and WilyKit do make a rather boneheaded mistake, but it’s believable, age-appropriate, and actually motivated by something genuine. They’re not just screwing up because “that’s what kids do” (a distinctly adult perspective), but rather for the same reason adults screw up: because their mistake seemed like a good idea at the time.
The one head-smacking element of this episode is Lion-O chastising the kittens for their irresponsible behavior, as if he doesn’t fuck up royally on a weekly basis. Not to mention that he’s technically the same age, if not younger, than they are. The writers seem to be inconsistent in when they remember that Lion-O’s adult appearance is nothing more than the result of malfunctioning medical equipment. In his head, he’s still like thirteen. Come off it, dude.
MUMM-RANA (Season 1, Episode 63)
It’s really cool to see that Mumm-Ra has an opposite. Mumm-Rana is every bit the avatar of good that Mumm-Ra is of evil, and seeing the inverted parallels between them is just plain neat.
I, for one, think ThunderCats could have used a lot more of Mumm-Rana, at least in theory. I love her booming contralto, her dignified presence; she has a very Galadriel vibe to her, though she could stand to take a page out of the Elven lady’s book when it comes to her fashion sense. Her design could be better. And why she wasn’t “Mumm-Isis” or “Mumm-Hathor” I don’t know… oh, let’s not mince words. The writers just weren’t trying that hard.
FOND MEMORIES (Season 1, Episode 65)
Okay, if “The Trial of Evil” wasn’t going to be the season (and possibly series) finale, this episode is almost as fitting in the role. Mumm-Ra lays a trap for Lion-O that basically consists of a Greatest Hits roster of villains:
- The Mutants, because of course.
- Spidera, Queen of Eight Legs… the most Rankin-Bass looking creature in this entire series. Fifty bucks says that her design was a holdover from when Rankin-Bass’s The Return of the King included Shelob.
- Safari Joe, deeply annoying with his constant spouting of his fucking catchphrase but nonetheless formidable.
- Rataro-O. Sure, why not?
- Evil Lion-O. Nothing says nemesis like a palette swap.
This alone would have been great, but Snarf rallying the troops for a rescue mission, only for them to fail so that Lion-O can turn around and rescue all of them? Priceless.
If we left a favorite episode of yours off this list or included one you hate, let us know in the comments, and we can have a fun discussion about it.