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Flash in the Pan: "Defenders" Fails to Ignite

I wouldn’t describe Defenders of the Earth as one of my childhood favorites. Even back then, my toy-addicted lump of gray matter found it generic and uninspiring. Last year, when I had the opportunity to review Filmation’s Flash Gordon for Toon Zone, I also had the chance to compare it with Defenders of the Earth because Ink & Paint—those brilliant little DVD boxset masterminds—had thrown in the Defenders of the Earth premiere episode as an extra feature. The stratagem did Defenders no favors. Now Ink & Paint has doubled down on a bad bet by including the premiere episode of Flash Gordon on this new Defenders set.

I told you they were brilliant masterminds.

Defenders of the Earth was a Marvel cartoon that utilized some of the King Features Syndicate’s more famous characters: Flash Gordon, The Phantom, and Mandrake the Magician (and Mandrake’s comic friend, Lothar). These characters are thrown into a heroic group along with their various offspring, who are training to become as great heroes as their fathers. From their rather generic lair with their suitably generic computer “Dynak-X,” the Defenders fight the evil Ming the Merciless, who himself resides in a “hidden” fortress everyone seems to know about. (That base has the peculiar ability to incite the Defenders to involuntary shout “Ice Station Earth” in unison when it becomes plot apparent; I’ve yet to understand why this is so.)

The main problem with Defenders of the Earth is that it’s just so contrived. The premiere episode, “Escape from Mongo” is just story-by-numbers, dragging the characters together to create the team the show wants. There’s no real friction, no real drama, and very little character beyond caricature. In fact, it plays out with about as much dramatic intensity as a video game. The show’s whole concept lacks any real substance; it borrows these respected comic characters and then just jerks them around like puppets on a string.

There is no truth to the characters, who are utterly vacuous and exist only as agents for the plot and the show’s marketing agenda. Head hero Flash Gordon is painfully unfaithful to his original source—unlike Filmation’s adaptation of the character—so that he ends up as just some all-encompassing hero archetype. He loses his wife (presumably Dale Arden, though that’s never confirmed) in the first episode, but that event is given no dramatic impetus at all. Sure, a kids’ cartoon can’t really invest in such issues, but you should never play out a scenario with such a strong potential impact on the characters’ motivations if you are not in position to follow it through. It simply cheapens Gordon and damages the integrity of the cartoon.

The Phantom and Mandrake don’t get any real development either, but at least they hew closer to their original sources. Mandrake is the most charismatic character, and his friendship with Lothar is played consistently throughout. Meanwhile, the Phantom gets some rather interesting episodes early in the show, but then he vanishes from the spotlight. This is a great shame, given that he is the only one of the old heroes whose situation in the show has any possibility of dramatic tension: his loyalties are split between the team and his home in Africa. His best episode is a vague two-parter, “A House Divided”/”Family Reunion,” that uses a familiar action cartoon template (the villains enlist a character from the past to turn against the hero) but isn’t as formulaic as it initially seems. The Phantom had the most dramatic potential of any character in the show, but he was woefully underused.

One positive, though, is the enemy, Ming the Merciless. He gets great voice work from William Callaway, who offers up a far more imposing, masculine Ming than did Alan Oppenheimer in the Filmation Flash Gordon series. While this Ming lacks the imperial ambiance of Filmation’s version of the character, he does retain his malevolence, and the show plays him as an intelligent character who often comes very close to winning. I particularly appreciated that his schemes were not always transparent to the audience, which is often in the dark as to the full extent of his plans. Defenders of the Earth never demeans Ming’s integrity as a threatening force, and in an era of action cartoons where the sole aim was to make “bad guys” look stupid, this is incredibly refreshing and adds a certain amount of tension to the story.

But all hints of potential in some of the cast are smothered by rest of it. There’s a great ensemble of voice talent behind the heroes’ teenage offspring, but these characters lack depth, and we see little of them outside their simulation room. Nor does it surprise that, like nearly all eighties cartoons, Defenders had the mandatory insufferable sidekick, who always had to fall into trouble and learn a moral lesson at the end. Here he’s been split—or doubled up, depending on your choice of metaphor—into two characters: as Zuffy, who looks like the abortive hybrid of a Care Bear and a Wuzzle, and Kshin, Mandrake’s adopted son. Both appear far too often, to the detriment of other characters who might have been more interesting.

Defenders fails to inspire on most levels. Not only are its characters poorly developed, its gadgets and base of operations lack consistency and originality. A good action cartoon knows how much kids love gadgets, weapons, and spacecraft, and it will add those elements into the aesthetic. Defenders fails even on this count. Everything is either a substandard Star Wars rip off or utterly inconsistent. Even Flash’s fighter—possibly the most often used vehicle in the show—is unmemorable. Defenders of the Earth offers designs that would bore the socks off a trainspotter.

The animation itself is also terribly inconsistent. There is one shot where two of the characters are so badly aligned that the one in the background falls in front of the foreground character! When you study the animation frame by frame, some of the facial expressions and proportions carry very little continuity.

In essence, Defenders of the Earth lacks any invested identity. It just comes across as crass commercialism in cartoon form and surprisingly lacks any real marketable edge. I for one was a total sucker for cartoon marketed toys when I was young, and yet Defenders was one of the few cartoons that failed to tickle my money pouch; even as a toy-hungry child, I could taste the crass marketing behind this cartoon. Of course, that is a mandate of all action cartoons, but part of your success is how you creatively infuse a show that is being financed to sell toys. Look at He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and you’ll find a cartoon made to sell Mattel’s toy range but which did such a creatively excellent job at expanding that universe that it reshaped the concepts within the existing toy line.

That’s the show. How’s the boxset itself? As with all the Ink & Paint DVD boxsets, it’s an excellent package with colorfully rendered box and discs. There are some beautifully illustrated art cards that come with the set. The inlay has an informative episode guide for the first volume of this series, and the discs themselves carry a respectable collection of thirty-three episodes.

The interactive menus are a mix of footage and sound from the show, though I’ll note as a minor design quibble that the transition between episode listing and chapter selection is infuriatingly long. The chapter selection is a must-see as it contains a healthy set of trivia that gives inside information as to the show’s production and is never shy of pointing out some of the episode gaffes. One little piece of trivia I enjoyed learning was that some of the referential comes to stock audio. Indeed, you’ll find stock FX coming from everywhere: Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, a variety of action cartoons—even Doctor Who! The trivia section is a great place to start any budding audio quest.

The special features include host of individual interviews with people behind the production, and Batman: The Animated Series fans may enjoy the brief, light interview with Loren Lester, who went on to voice Dick Grayson. There is, unfortunately, just one commentary, and like the individual interviews it’s a fairly light-hearted affair. But it’s worth a listen as it gives some interesting background information about the difficulties of making the show.

The presentation pilot is interesting, especially given that it was conceived for promotional use only. The “story” itself is merely simple dressing made to present the characters and concept, but it manages to come together as a rather charming package. Look out for the alternate character models used in this presentation (which resurface for a brief reappearance in the episode “Root of Evil”) and a great little bit of nostalgic stock music score that 80s cartoon fans may remember from Dungeons and Dragons.

The Character Bio Section is—as with all in the Ink Paint range—extensive and rich with information, and the model sheet slideshow offers some sharp model renders of the characters and central locations.

The storyboard feature is always a fascinating section. Here, it’s a Prince Valiant-oriented story, “Terror in Time,” that gets a fairly long comparison of the show’s storyboards to the finished product.

The actual picture quality for the episodes themselves isn’t great, so don’t expect a fantastically clean visual experience.

Strangely, I was unable to find the image gallery or the bonus Flash Gordon episode on the final disk. I don’t know if I’m going crazy, but as far as I can see, the screener I was sent doesn’t have these two features, even though the packing says it does. Furthermore, my Mac was unable to locate the PDF files of the show’s Bible, storyboards and scripts. Maybe it’s a problem on my end, but I think it’s worth mentioning that I personally was unable to find any sign of these elements.

The principle of Defenders of the Earth was a bold one: take some of the historic comic legends and bind them into a near-future battle for the planet. It’s unfortunate that the crass format of the eighties action cartoon suffocated the show’s potential with dull characterization, an excess of annoying teenagers, and some very inconsistent animation. The show is remembered mostly for a catchy theme that, like the show’s construction, is an unfortunate paragon of the Eighties.

This DVD boxset is a rewarding collection that will certainly appeal to the show’s fans. Casual buyers, though, should be wary that the show lacks the allure memory might promise. Get past the wafer-thin characterizations and you might find some fairly decent stories. It takes work, but given this is such a well-packaged boxset, it might be worth a try if Eighties cartoons are a personal favorite of yours.

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