"Blackstar The Complete Series" Review: He's No Man, He's a Star
Dungeons and Dragons, Conan the Barbarian, and He-Man are arguably the only sword and sorcery properties to have notably endured beyond the genre’s brief boom in the early 1980s. Most of the many also-ran properties have been all but forgotten, regrettably including the two animated series that blazed the trail for He-Man. Ruby Spears’ excellent Thundarr the Barbarian continues to rot in a vault somewhere, but, thanks to the good folks at BCI Eclipse, Filmation’s Blackstar has finally returned to televisions via The Complete Series collection.
Produced in 1981 between Thundarr and He-Man, Blackstar is an interesting mix of the two. Like Thundarr, its world is dark and monster-filled, and its heroes fight a tyrannical regime. In all other respects, it is a scaled down version of He-Man, right down to the characters, art design, and recycled footage. Although the plots aren’t really any deeper than He-Man‘s, the sense of urgency makes them slightly more compelling.
However Blackstar also shares He-Man‘s Achilles’ heel. While the latter is often stopped in his tracks by odious comic-relief character Orko, Blackstar has to contend with seven of them. Created to placate CBS, the hot pink Trobbits regularly pop up to jarringly spoil the mood with cornball slapstick and music.
Much like Buck Rogers, John Blackstar (George DiCenzo—She-Ra‘s Bow) is an astronaut who through bizarre circumstances is transported to a strange and dangerous world. On the distant planet Sagar he selflessly fights to liberate those infernal Trobbits from the rule of the cruel Overlord (Alan Oppenheimer—He-Man‘s Skeletor). Overlord’s strength comes from the Powerstar, a magical object that was split into two pieces, the Powersword and the Starsword. He wields the former and is constantly chasing after the latter, which has fallen into Blackstar’s hands. Our hero is aided in his struggle by his trusty dragon Warlock, effeminate shape-shifter Klone, and potential love interest and enchantress Mara (Linda Gary—He-Man‘s Teela).
My favorite episode has to be “The Zombie Masters,” one of several penned by veteran sci-fi writers Michael Reaves (Batman: The Animated Series) and Mark Scott Zicree (Star Trek: The New Voyages). Blackstar and company run afoul of the floating city Marakand, which destroys everything in its path Independence Day-style. Its Jabba-like ruler, Shaldemar, captures Mara and some Trobbits and turns them into zombie slaves. Blackstar races to stop Marakand before it obliterates the Trobbits’ tree home, but his entranced friends stand in his way.
|“OK, forget the movie. How about we take a look for the Starsword at your place?”|
I admit a tree house doesn’t sound like great motivation, but, uh, it’s magical and an invaluable piece of stock art. Did He-Man get to live in a pimped out pink tree? I don’t think so.
Blackstar‘s characters are few and much less flamboyant than the Eternians, which stands to reason as there was no toy line until years after the show was cancelled. On the plus side, unlike He-Man’s entourage, the characters do not all share the exact same physique.
Blackstar himself is highly similar to the blandly heroic He-Man, only slightly slimmer, less strong, and unburdened with a lame second identity. Rumor has it he was originally intended to be black, but due either to cold feet or a potential lawsuit from Black Vulcan this idea was dropped early on.
Speaking of the Super Friends, Klone shares the powers and looks of Wonder Twin Zan, and is only slightly more useful. The Gleek-like Trobbits, who inevitably crack tedious jokes or clumsily drag our heroes into peril, are a stabbing pain that just won’t go away.
|“One more wisecrack and it’s bang, zoom, to the moon, Balkar!”|
I was always fond of Overlord (possibly a cousin of the Spiral Zone villain?), partly due to his menacing gaze and Shogun Warrior costume, but I must admit he hasn’t aged as well as the scene stealing Skeletor. Whereas the latter deftly goes from murderous threats to corny insults to maniacal laughter at the drop of a hat, the former sticks mostly to a low, pompous monotone. Oppenheimer tries to compensate for the generic dialogue by delivering it with amusingly hammy gusto.
As with most Filmation productions the action is nothing special, but there are a few flashes of excitement. The first episode’s climax finds Blackstar crossing swords with Overlord in a small hovercraft when an errant blast sends the ship plunging toward an erupting volcano. At the last moment Blackstar is whisked away by Warlock, but Overlord isn’t so fortunate.
Blackstar‘s animation is very similar to He-Man‘s, and the shows shared several staff members, including the ubiquitous Bruce Timm. Apparently no rotoscoping was done specifically for this show, so movement seems a little more varied and less mechanical. On the other hand the art design tends to be a bit basic, even by He-Man standards. Overlord’s ship looks like a blue can opener. The set’s video quality is excellent, though the image could stand to be slightly brighter at times.
|“And get this, he wears pink and talks to his cat!”|
If not extremely diverse, the Conanesque adventure score is very cinematic and ratchets up the excitement more effectively than He-Man‘s more pop-oriented soundtrack.
BCI has put together yet another fantastic set with Blackstar. As with the He-Man sets, the packaging and discs are graced with superb artwork, and there’s an informative booklet full of trivia.
Filmation honcho Lou Scheimer, storyboard coordinator Mike Bennett, former CBS children’s programming director Ted Field II, and several writers and artists share their thoughts in two episode commentaries and a host of interviews. One might say there is almost too much material, and it might have been better off condensed into a concise documentary. For the patient there are some interesting tidbits: Disney fan Scheimer’s interest in the Seven Dwarves inspired the creation of the Trobbits, who were colored blue before the Smurf explosion occurred. And Scheimer believes the reason Blackstar didn’t enjoy He-Man‘s popularity was that he lacked his younger sibling’s dramatic superpowers.
The small gallery of familiar character sketches and corresponding cels unfortunately feels a little lacking. Surely some of the many staff members interviewed have some cool concept art they could share, such as the fabled black Blackstar.
|“NOW YOU DI… for Pete’s sake Blackstar, is a shower too much to ask for?!”|
“The Magic of Filmation” documentary takes a thorough and highly interesting look at the company’s history, although it has shown up previously on the He-Man Season Two Part One set.
The real pearl is the collection of all thirteen scripts and two storyboards. (The package, though, teasingly claims 5.) It’s neat to see how the shots were planned out, and what subtle changes occurred between the page and the finished cels, such as dropped dialogue or simplified designs. Hopefully other companies will follow BCI’s lead and start providing this great feature.
Ultimately Blackstar The Complete Series is one for the fans. The show was a Saturday morning highlight in the barren early 80s, but today it’s not particularly exceptional. It’s well worth checking out for Thundarr and especially He-Man followers however, if only to see the foundation laid for the latter. It’s a crying shame that Filmation gave us a Skeletor/Hordak crossover, and yet the only place we got to see skullface and Overlord face off was at Toys R Us.