Thundercats: The Complete Season 2 (Part One)
|The New Thundercats|
For years, season 2 of Thundercats has been something of a holy grail for UK fans. While US viewers got to see all 130 episodes of the show in its original 1985-6 run and then in re-runs on Cartoon Network, here in the UK the show simply finished somewhere around the end of Season 1 (the first 65 episodes). For whatever reason, no matter how many times Children’s BBC or Saturday morning schedules reran it, it was always the same: we’d get to the epic trials of “Lion-O’s Anointment” and then the run would either abruptly end or, bafflingly, loop round to the first episodes again. I’ve searched the net over and can’t seem to find a definitive answer for why this was. (The best summary of the whole sorry affair can be read here.)
To make things really confusing for us British kids, places like Toys R Us had been selling the new characters from Season 2 for ages. So we were in a perverse situation where we had toys for characters we’d never even seen. I remember that the figure for Bengali was referred to exclusively as “blue Tygra” or “Tygra’s brother” in my friendship circle.
To add insult to old injuries, back in 2005 and 2006, Warner Bros. treated the US market to all 130 episodes in four lovely volumes. In 2007, as if to mock our eager British faces they gave us season 1 in two volumes. And then, finally, in June 2008, for the first time EVER, UK fans were able to view season 2 legally. Suffice to say, it’s been a long wait. The item reviewed presently is the Complete Season 2 Boxset which contains volumes 1 and 2 (on 12 discs), which were released in single editions earlier in 2008.
So, was it worth the wait? I’ve already discussed the pros and cons of Thundercats at length, and most of my comments from that article apply here. My TZ colleague, Duke, also wrote a great episode-by-episode review of season 2, volume 1 back when it was released in the US in 2006. Rather than retracing old ground, I’d prefer to focus on the significant changes that took place during the first half of season 2 in a more general way. Then, in a follow-up review (“Part 2”), I will offer comments on the show’s sad decline towards the end of the 130 episode run.
The first two discs of the set consist of two epic five-part story arcs written by the show’s creator and head writer, Leonard Starr. “Thundercats Ho!”, which was later collected as “Thundercats: The Movie”, centres on Mumm-Ra’s most evil plan to date, one which sees the return of many one-shot villains and allies. Hundreds, no doubt, thousands, of British viewers would be shocked to learn that Lion-O, Cheetarah, Panthro and Tygra were not the only Thunderians to escape from Third Earth as it was destroyed, because three others also managed to escape: Bengali, a blacksmith; Pumyra, a nurse; and their older companion, Lynx-O, who has finely attuned senses of touching and hearing “because he is blind”. The three Thunderians are quickly admitted into the ranks of the Thundercats, given their own base (The Tower of Omens) and their own flying vehicle (The Thunderstrike).
The second five-parter, “Mumm-Ra Lives”, introduces a new set of villains called The Luna-Taks, who are to provide a significant new challenge for the Thundercats since the Mutants are now such easily and repeatedly defeated jokes. There are six of them, each from a different moon of Plun-Darr: Tug Mug, who has power over gravity; Red-Eye, who can see in heat sensitive infra-red and throw discs at his enemies; Chilla, who is the queen of cold and can shoot ice and, bizarrely, fire too—she is incredibly powerful; Aluro, who is the master of the mind and can use his pysch club to dominate or demoralise his opponents; and, finally, the leader, Luna, an annoying little witch who sits atop the brutish but docile Amok, in a relationship reminiscent of Master-Blaster of Mad Max fame.
|Lynx-O in the Tower of Omens, on his “Braille Board,” with Bengali and Pumyra|
These two five-part stories effectively set the stage for the next three discs: the New Thundercats are now part of a much bigger Thundercats team and the Luna-Taks are a major threat to rival Mumm-Ra and dominate the Mutants. Before moving into my evaluation proper, it would be wrong not to point out that these ten episodes are arguably among the very best Thundercats episodes period. Starr has a very secure grasp of the Thundercats mythos and treats it with respect, something which, sadly, cannot be said of many of the other writers for the show. Continuity is not a word that one often associates with a series that is famous for its outrageous plot holes, but “Thundercats Ho!” draws on previous stories with remarkable consistency. The return of little-seen villains such as Captain Shiner and Ratar-O is not only welcome but praiseworthy for the fact that they remember their previous dealings with Mumm-Ra and pursue their own evil ends.
However, I must temper this praise with two criticisms. First, is the fact that these DVD prints faithfully reproduce the “in last week’s episode” recaps and “in next week’s episode” previews that top and tail each part of the story. This is not only distracting and tiresome, but also incredibly irritating because the previews contain MASSIVE spoilers about the next episode. This might seem like a small bugbear, but if you don’t reach the skip button in time you may spend an entire show knowing exactly what is going to happen, thereby sapping what little suspense there is. Second, such is the high quality of the episodes penned by Starr that it sets you up for almost inevitable disappointment in the next few discs. Very few of the myriad writers who were employed on the series had the same vision, and almost everything suffers in comparison: the plots, the characterisations, the dialogue, the entire mythos. It’s as if Starr sets a template that only he is able to follow.
More on all that later, because right now I want to concentrate on the impact of the massive changes to Thundercats that Starr introduced. I want to divide these into pros and cons. Let’s start with the good news.
The New Thundercats and the Luna-Taks: Pros
1. Voice Acting: The voice acting in Thundercats is generally atrocious but these new characters are, on the whole, pretty well voiced. Aluro—who is as far as I know, and for whatever reason, the only character voiced by Doug Preis—has a wonderuflly menacing, mellifluous quality in an accent that seems to be Preis’s original creation: “You don’t stand a chaaa-nce against Aluro!” He is a great new character. Peter Newman, who I had earlier accused of being William Shartner-ish in his role as Tygra, gives Bengali one of the most unique voices I’ve ever heard: he literally seems to growl as he speaks. It’s very hard to explain it without breaking copyright laws.
|The Tower of Omens|
2. Location: One of the most impressive things about Thundercats, especially in Leonard Starr’s episodes, is the depth of geographical and geological detail found on the planet of Third Earth. Even before season 2, there was a marvelous sense of location: Cat’s Lair, Mumm-Ra’s Black Pyramid, Castle Plun-Darr (the Mutant’s Base), the Berbil Village, the Tree-Top Kingdom of the Amazon Women, and the perpetually snowy Hook Mountain. The new characters serve to expand this already impressive landscape. The Luna-Taks live in a mobile base called Sky tomb in the desolate and volcanic region of Dark Side. Dark Side proves to be a tactical problem for the Thundercats because it lies beyond the deadly Thundranium Pits, which is like their version of Kryptonite. To counter that, they build an outpost near the border to Dark Side called The Tower of Omens. The only way to get from The Tower of Omens to Dark Side is to traverse a very dangerous and craggy set of caves that only Lynx-O (with his “brail board”) can navigate. This all creates a sense of scale that most cartoons can’t boast of: there are times when some of the original Thundercats team are back at Cat’s Lair and the new Thundercats are at the Tower of Omens, while Lion-O is somewhere in Dark Side battling Luna-Taks and the Mutants are plotting at Castle Plunn-Darr. Meanwhile, Mumm-Ra is back at his pyramid spying on them all and chuckling to himself. This aspect of season 2 is extremely cool. And the artwork that depicts each location is one of the show’s biggest strengths; it’s easy to see why the toys were so successful.
3. Politics: A by-product of having so many different locations is the level of political intrigue it fosters both between different factions and within them. Now the Thundercats have two different factions (three if you include the growing numbers of Snarfs; yes, Snarf also gets a nephew called “Snarfer”! More on that in the “cons” section). Lynx-O in his sagely wisdom presents a latent (and never spoken of) challenge to the authority of both Jaga and Lion-O. These tensions are hinted at nicely in the episode “Catfight,” during which Mumm-Ra ingeniously sows the seeds of dissent and distrust among the Thundercats. In “Runaways”, the Thunderkittens become disheartened because the arrival of the new Thundercats has rendered them virtually redundant. And, later, in “Thundercubs, Part 3” (part of another five-parter), the Snarfs show racial and familial loyalty over loyalty to their employers—Snarf actually tricks Panthro into rushing to save the Snarf slaves, despite strict orders from Lion-O that rushing in is a bad idea. This internal dynamic is really quite interesting to watch sometimes.
|Chilla: Ice Queen dominatrix, dominating Vultureman|
The internal dynamics of the Luna-Taks are just as interesting. Luna, who doesn’t seem to have any special powers to speak of (other than being annoying and sitting on the head of the strong oaf Amok), is by no means their natural leader. Aluro, naturally, thinks that he’s the natural leader. Chilla—who can only be described as an Ice Queen dominatrix—has other ideas. It is pretty fun to watch them squabble over who should be leader and it is often the reason they fail (yes, *yawn*, because they can’t work as a team). The only problem with this is that it is not exactly clear why Luna is the de facto head; she uses Amok’s brute strength to bully them, but there’s absolutely no reason at all when, for example, Chilla doesn’t just give him an iceblast or Aluro doesn’t just dominate him (especially as he’s small minded). It’s one of the many illogical things that you just have to learn to live with as a Thundercats fan.
Even more interesting than the internal dynamics are the inter-group relations, especially those between the villains. The Lunataks quickly form an uneasy alliance with Mumm-Ra, whom they hate and ultimately want to destroy (it’s a long story but he was basically responsible for imprisoning them in a cave for centuries), and the Mutants, whom they see as pitifully inferior. Each of the groups have their own agendas and sub-agendas: both Mumm-Ra and the Luna-Taks plan on destroying the other after defeating the Thundercats, and the Mutants, who are often seen chilling out playing cards at Castle Plunn-Darr in this season, just seem to want a quiet life now. Co-operation on any given scheme is not guaranteed, and betrayals if things go badly are pretty much the status quo. This adds a layer of political complexity that is rare in mass-market American cartoons from the 80s.
|Vultureman receives an ice-blast from Chilla|
4. Vultureman: One of the chief beneficiaries of this new political climate is everyone’s favourite mutant, the ambitious Vultureman. Vultureman was always disgruntled under the leadership of S-s-slithe because he viewed himself as the more intelligent and more competent mutant. So when the Luna-Taks arrive, it is not long before he jumps ship and offers his services to them. However, the Luna-Taks have other ideas and simply wish to use him. This creates one of the more endearing and hilarious relationships in the series, that between Vultureman and Chilla. Vultureman is so eager to create an impression on the icy Luna-Tak that he frequently becomes over-excited; her response is always the same: a swift ice-blast to the throat! (“The Sounds Stones” provides an excellent example). The more Vultureman tries to prove his brilliance, the less Chilla is impressed. The episode “Vultureman’s Revenge” contains one the show’s great one-liners from Vultureman while he’s waiting for Chilla: “Just like Chilla to threaten me not to be late, then KEEP ME WAITING!” It’s brilliant! I also like Vultureman’s character progression from disgruntled Mutant, to defector working for the Luna-Taks, to crazed solo villain—it’s the sort of thing that Thundercats needed more of.
|Mumm-Ra using his advanced management skills with Aluro|
5. Mumm-Ra’s Schemes The new characters and locations effectively double Mumm-Ra’s strategic options. Many episodes involve him brilliantly making decoy attacks on the Tower of Omens and then launching surprise strikes on Cat’s Lair. His use of individual Luna-Taks is pretty good too. In “Pysch Out”, for example, when he finds the Egora talisman, a MacGuffin that bestows its wielder with unshakable confidence, he gives it to Aluro—someone whose entire schtick is about demoralising his opponents. (If nothing else Mumm-Ra believes in the old management maxim of placing people in the appropriate skill sets!) Mumm-Ra’s solo capers are inspired in this stretch of episodes too. In “Day of the Eclipse” he casts an awesome 100-year decay spell on the Thundercats, which gives glimpses of his awesome power. And his cunning disguises in episodes such as “Cat Fight”, “Runaways” and “Hair of the Dog” are only undermined by his propensity to reveal himself too quickly. That said, it’s difficult not to cackle gleefully whenever he does get a chance to reek havoc in Cat’s Lair: his sheer passion for evil is a delight in itself. I should also mention that it is fun to watch him unfurl his plot in Peter Lawrence’s five-parter “Thundercubs” because he is one step ahead of his opponents at almost every stage. Nice to see him as a proper, credible threat to the Thundercats for a change.
The New Thundercats and the Luna-Taks: Cons
1. The Quick Decline of the Luna-Taks: Starr went to great lengths in the introduction of the Luna-Taks during “Mumm-Ra Lives!” to make them a credible and dangerous new threat to the Thundercats, presumably with a view to replacing the Mutants, who had long become easily defeated jokes. The rest of the writing team, however, then seem to have seen it as their mission to systematically obliterate that credibility! Within, say, five episodes, the Thundercats have already devised full-proof tactics to defeat each of the Lunta-Taks and we find them reduced to the same level as the mutants: predictably and routinely defeated. The main trouble with this is that, unlike the Mutants, the Luna-Taks don’t really function as comic relief, so these episodes just become dull. I must confess that, were I not reviewing this set for Toon Zone, such crushingly dull episodes as “Hatchiman’s Honour” would have had me reaching for the skip button.
2. Lynx-O’s Overpoweredness: Of the three new Thundercats, by far the most prominently featured is Lynx-O, to such an extent, in fact, that the other two scarcely get a look in. In fact, Lynx-O hogs so much screen time that old favourites Tygra and Cheetarah are almost background characters for many episodes, and it’s not uncommon for them not to appear at all!
|Lynx-O: possibly the most overpowered character since Superman|
However, the problems with Lynx-O don’t end there. The writers, frankly, overplay “he’s-got-great-senses-because-he’s-blind” card. There are literally no end to the man’s talents. He not only has super-sonic hearing but also amazing special awareness, unrivalled wisdom, telepathy (which another Thundercat, Cheetarah, already has), a magical sense of touch which allows him to sense “the past” on certain objects, and a Mr. Spock-like neck pinch! On top of all that Panthro and Tygra build him a “Braille Board,” which apparently allows him to see “better” than anyone who can see: a device that is simply beyond human comprehension. In addition to his other powers, the “Braille Board” allows Lynx-O to both navigate and pilot the Thundercutter through a cavern (to Dark Side) that no other character can traverse; and, from the Tower of Omens, to monitor both Third Earth and Space. This renders the majority of the Thudercats team basically superfluous. Even the Thunderkittens are frequently out of a job, because their old “stay back and guard the base” role is now reserved for the likes of Bengali.
All this also leads to another problem: the ridiculous, borderline embarrassing reliance on deus ex machina endings in which Lynx-O saves the day either because of his amazing powers or simply (as in “Psych Out”) “because he is blind”. Thus, it is Lynx-O who finally defeats Mumm-Ra at the end of the epic “Mumm-Ra Lives!” because he finds a strange talisman on the floor of the pyramid and “senses it is not evil”; he then uses the talisman to defeat Mumm-Ra. It is Lynx-O who defeats the mythical “Childe of Elfshima” (in the otherwise great episode, “The Mask of Gorgon”) by using his amazing piloting skills to fly into its ear. It is Lynx-O who, “because he is blind” and therefore immune to a hypnotic red beam, flies to the rescue in “Ravage Island”. You get the picture.
3. The Underuse of Characters: As I’ve mentioned, after their initial introduction, Bengali (with the awesome voice) and Pumyra are not really used that much and therefore cut rather shallow figures. We don’t really learn much about them at all; there is zero character development. Tygra—probably my fave Thundercat—also gets shafted by all the changes, we barely see him. It’s also notable that, of the Luna-Taks, we see Aluro, Chilla and Luna (and Amok) far more than we see Red-Eye or Tug Mug. It just made me wonder: what’s the point of introducing all these characters if you’re not going to use them?
|Snarfer with “Mexican take-out”|
4. Snarfer: Shortly after the Tower of Omens is built, we find out that Snarf has a nephew with a high-pitched, annoying voice and—that’s right—he’s coming to join the team to work in the new base. If you thought Snarf was annoying you ain’t seen nothing yet, kids! Imagine a Scooby Doo in which Scrappy Doo had a smaller, even more annoying sidekick. This is like Bat-Mite squared. It’s sick. To make matters even worse, what little spare time is left by Lynx-O’s overbearing presence is generally devoted to Snarfer. And, as if Thundercats needed any more deus ex machina plot devices, the writers also decided that Snarfs were immune to certain things which generally allow them to “save the day” (see, for example, “The Mad Bubbler”, “Ravage Island”, and “Hair of the Dog”). “Snarf saves the day” is cute once, but on the fifth or sixth time it’s simply nauseating. And does anyone need to be subjected to the sight of a giant Snarf-Ra in “Hair of the Dog”? As if things couldn’t get anyworse, TWO MORE Snarfs, Egbert and Oswalt, are added to the cast in “Thundercubs, Part 3” in a episode that sees an entire planet of Snarfs enslaved by Mumm-Ra. For god’s sake, enough!
5. The Rise of Overgardian Logic: Williaim Overgard, the most notorious and reviled of all the Thundercats writers, is only responsible for one episode of season 2, volume 1: “Sideswipe”. It is a worrying precursor of what is to come on volume 2; he has virtually no regard for Thundercats lore at all; just forget about continuity. First of all, Overgard resurrects Mandora the Evil Chaser, an intergalactic superhero policewoman who, basically, has no conceivable reason to exist with the Thundercats around. Things get worse though: the episode begins with Snarfer on his way back to Cat’s Lair with—wait for it—Mexican takeaway! That’s right Mexican takeaway from Mexico! Tacos! Tortillas! Chile con carne! No, it doesn’t matter that there’s no such thing as Mexico on Third Earth, or that the Thundercats, being y’know an alien humanoid species evolved from cats, have probably never heard of tacos. Not to Overgard! There is simply no end to this episode’s awfulness: Chilla freezes Mandora’s throat, after which Snarfer promptly offers her some of the “Mexican take-out” to “melt the ice”. Oh God. It gets worse: Vultureman is seen reading a newspaper: Which publication is that again? The Daily Mutant? Red-Eye suddenly has a “pacifier” weapon, which was never seen before, nor since, and seems to have nothing to do with Red-Eye’s vision-based modus operandi. And then, worst of all, in surely one of most grievous crimes against logic in the history of animation: Lynx-O reveals that he can make the Braille Board disappear any time he wants through the power of thought alone! Yes, because, you see, despite the fact that it was manufactured by Panthro and Tygra and has been damaged or destroyed numerous times, the board is only a figment of Lynx-O’s imagination! Yes! Seriously, what made Overgard think he could write stories for kid’s shows? More to the point, who hired him?
After a really promising start with the two five-parters written by Leonard Starr, season 2 volume 1 represents, for the best part, a series of missed opportunities and missteps in which the bad tends to outweigh the good. The five-parters aside, for every great episode there are about two bad ones, and for every great character (e.g. Vultureman, Mumm-Ra, Aluro) there are, quite literally, two or three Snarfs. If you’re a big Thundercats fan then this is a must-buy and you probably already have it. But if you’re a British nostalgia freak with fond memories of the show as a kid who wants to buy something Thundercats for kitsch value it’s probably best to stick with the episodes you saw back then so get Season 1 first and to proceed with caution from there, or even better, just buy that t-shirt with the logo on it. If you’re an animation fan more generally then I can’t honestly recommend this as anything more than a mild curiosity, a study of how a successful show attempted to update and revitalise itself.
Part 2 of this review, which covers season 2, volume 2, is forthcoming.
Thundercats: The Complete Season 2 is out now