Thundercats: The Complete Season 2 (Part Two)
Edward D. Wood Jr. is often cited as the worst filmmaker ever to commit his vision to celluloid, and pictures like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda are so insanely bad that it is difficult not to watch them with a morbid fascination. These and other films are so stunningly awful they have become the center of a cult-like fascination, of the sort celebrated in Michael and Harry Medved’s The Golden Turkey Awards.
At its very worst, William Overgard’s work on Thundercats approaches that level of awfulness, and there’s no doubt the show would have garnered a cult following of its own if he had conceived and written the entire series himself. But he didn’t write Thundercats alone, and aspects of the series remain moderately impressive. (For a mass market 80s American cartoon, that is.) Paradoxically, then, Overgard’s work cannot attain a Woodsian “so-bad-it’s-good” status.
Needless to say, though, Thundercats fans do not hold Overgard in high esteem, and they regularly charge him with destroying the show. In this second part of my Thundercats review I want to assess that claim. Specifically, I’m going to ask if Overgard, who wrote seven of the final thirty episodes, did enough collateral damage on his own, and to whether the remaining episodes stack up when compared with season 1 or the first half of season 2 (which I reviewed here)?
* * * * *
In the second season, the producers rewrote a bit of Thundercats history. Originally, the Thundercats were the lone survivors of the planet Thundera, which had been completely destroyed. However, in the five-part “Thundercubs” saga they discover that a new planet (New Thundera) has started to reform from their home world. This move has been severely criticised by fans for robbing the series of much of its original charm: “To me, the destruction of Thundera was a way to teach kids that you have hard times in life and that things (and people) die … bringing back Thundera is like telling kids that nothing bad that happens ever lasts forever, which we all know just isn’t true”.
Leaving aside the questionable moral angle, this change plays an important part in subsequent episodes. First, soon after finding the new planet, the Thundercats discover that their ancestors left ancient and magical Thunderian treasures there, and many episodes centre either on the quest for a certain magical relic or the investigation that follows the discovery of such a relic. They also discover an ancient tome called “The Book of Omens” which has cryptic information on all the artifacts they find. Second, it gives the Thundercats an almost permanent pretext to split up: In most episodes an expedition team will go to New Thundera while another team remains on Third Earth. At least these two moves help keep the show dynamic and prevent it from repeating the standard Thundercats vs. Mutants/ Lunataks/ Mumm-Ra storylines.
Disc one starts with a real clunker courtesy of Overgard: “Exile Isle” is about as bad as Thundercats gets. As with most Overgard episodes, a brief synopsis of the plot should serve as confirmation of its utter lack of quality: Wilykit and Wilykat are taking a stroll with their new mechanical dog, Scooper (making his totally random debut), when they are attacked and captured by the Lunataks. Scooper manages to escape by transforming his ears into helicopter propellers and notifies the Thundercats, who promptly apprehend the Lunataks. Then—for the first time in a hundred episodes—they put the villains on trial (with Lynx-O serving as the judge) and afterward dispatch their most dangerous enemies by teleporting them to the little-known planet of Exile Isle. So much for the Lunataks’ representing some sort of legitimate threat! Then, as if it couldn’t get any worse, once the Lunataks arrive on Exile Isle they bump into Captain Cracker, an Overgard original first introduced (and not seen since) in “Mandora and the Pirates” back in episode 31.
I have to stop here and ask: Do you think Overgard ever wondered why the other writers hadn’t made use of any of his creations? Why only he reused Mandora the Evil Chaser or Captain Cracker? Didn’t it occur to him that the Thundercats already had a set of established pirates, replete with stereotypical pirate voices? Didn’t he realise that Thundercats already had a cool villain of that rank called Captain Shiner? Didn’t he know this multitude of pirates and captains might confuse kids and adults alike? But to ask such questions is a pointless waste.
Where were we? Oh yes: So the Lunataks arrive on Exile Isle, form an uneasy alliance with Captain Cracker, and formulate an amazingly convoluted and improbable plot to fly the planet back to Third Earth (because, you see, the planet has been knocked “out of orbit” and so is floating “free” in space), which, of course, succeeds. Next, Snarfer—who is eating pizza (yes pizza!) and happens to be flying around that part of space—sees that the planet moving and calls Lion-O. The Lord of the Thundercats makes his way to Exile Isle leaves the Sword of Omens behind just in case the planet is destroyed. Upon arrival he mutters: “I feel naked without my sword,” but he did not go to Exile Isle completely unprepared and proceeds to defeat the Lunataks singlehandedly using only rock salt, a “lie translator” (WHAT?!), and some candy. But Cracker is still on the loose and causing trouble with mechanical palm trees (yip, that’s: mechanical palm trees). Lion-O contacts Panthro, who is on his way to help. (Why not just teleport??!) It doesn’t matter, because in the meantime Lion-O calls for the Sword of Omens, which travels all the way through space to Exile Isle, fights Cracker on his behalf, saves the day and helps free Lion-O and Snarfer.
Panthro (upon arrival): “Well Lion-O, it doesn’t look like you need any help from us.”
Lion-O: “Thanks to the Sword of Omens!”
That’s right kids: if you had a sword that can do anything you wouldn’t need any help from your friends either! Just about the only redeeming feature in this dog turd of an episode is Captain Cracker’s immortal line to Snarfer: “Come back ‘ere ya, pussy lubber!” Enough said.
|Tygra traverses a canyon impressively|
Amazingly, the next five episodes are pretty decent. In fact “Key to Thundera” (Matthew Malach), “Locket of Lies” and “Bracelet of Power” (both Bill Ratter) are three of the strongest standalone episodes in the entire 130 show run. In the first, Lion-O and Snarf become trapped in the Book of Omens, which is subsequently swiped by Mumm-Ra. After Lion-O escapes (by using his sword again, *yawn*) we are treated to an exquisite sequence in which Mumm-Ra himself gets trapped in the book and Lion-O feels compelled to save his worst enemy. It’s a surprising moment, though during the dénouement Lion-O reveals that he wasn’t just doing it out of the goodness of his own heart: He didn’t want Mumm-Ra lurking around the book learning Thundercat secrets!
In “Locket of Lies”, Mumm-Ra traps the Thundercats in a well/ magical deadly trap and laughs at them while two Snarfs (Oswalds and Eggbert) bicker and fail to save their friends (who get out using the sword *yawn*—got to expect that now). There’s an awesome scene in this episode where the Thundercats come to a chasm and take it in turns to traverse it in the most spectacular possible way—I think Tygra probably wins that one. And “Bracelet of Power,” in which we see a darker and more sinister side to Snarf(!), literally had me laughing out loud at some of Mumm-Ra’s lines, as when he transforms into a fly to gain entry into Cat’s Lair and, upon seeing Lion-O and Panthro in the corridor, mutters to himself “I might as well do some annoying while I’m here”. Got to love that pure, mischievous evil! I feel that of all the writers, creator Leonard Starr aside, Bill Ratter probably got Thundercats the best. His scripts fizz and crackle with wit, and he makes you love the Thundercats and love to hate Mumm-Ra. Just goes to show what the series could have been if it had stuck to a small team of writers rather than the massive rota of hacks it employed. I’ve no doubt that if every episode was of the quality of “Locket of Lies” or “Bracelet of Power” that it would now be thought of as a high-mark of 80s toondom rather than as the nostalgia-icon it seems to have become—it’s purely a writing issue.
Disc two is a more mixed affair than disc one. “The Wild Workout” and “The Jade Dragon” (an Overgard ep) are both mediocre episodes. “The Circus Train” (Overgard again) is one of the worst episodes in the entire run, while “The Thunderscope”—in which Lion-O actually dies! (for a while at least)—and “The Last Day” are two of the very best. “The Circus Train” is often cited by Thunder-fans as the show’s lowest point—a point from which, some argue, it never recovered. I have to say, when judged on its own merits, it’s not actually that bad. The premise is simple: Captain Bragg (yes, another Captain), a bounty hunter who happens to dress like a circus ring master and own a flying circus train and a talking crow called “Crownan”, turns up in Third Earth one day promising to dispense with unsavoury types for the right price by exiling them to “Way Out Back” (not Exile Isle this time Mr. Overgard?). He also has samples of invisibility potion to give out. Lion-O and the Thunderkittens hear a bit of his spiel about the potions and Lion-O dismisses him as a conman. Wilykat, however, is intrigued and goes to investigate. He promptly allows Bragg to hypnotise him, which is apparently enough to convince him that the potion works.
|Bragg makes a dummy of Wilykat|
Soon after Bragg reveals that he is after the Mutants and the Lunataks (they have “Wanted” posters – which begs the question: by who are they wanted?) and wants Wilykat’s help to capture them. The rest of the episode follows Bragg successfully catching each of the baddies using a variety of whacky methods, including the disturbing use of Wilykat as a ventriloquist (as if the kidnapping and manipulation of a young boy by an old man wasn’t creepy enough!). Late on, Lion-O shows up to ensure the villains don’t escape and Bragg decides to turn over a new leaf and promises to keep the Mutants and the Lunataks locked up securely. Lion-O seems entirely ok about the fact that Bragg captured, hypnotised and … erm … ventriloquised Wilykat by the way. And that’s it: no more Mutants or Lunataks! Objectively speaking, “The Circus Train” does not deserve its reputation as the worst ever episode. It has nowhere near the levels of f**kwittery that, for example, “Exile Isle” has. Its crime is the horrendously lame way the Mutants, perhaps the most consistently entertaining villains in the show, were written out. They didn’t get a big final battle against the Thundercats, no real send off, instead they merely remain captured in the circus train of a pervy old man. To add insult to injury, they disappear around the middle of the episode before Bragg goes off to find the Lunataks and, save for a little shot of them caged near the end, that’s the last we see of them. Frankly, it’s a rubbish way to write out characters who deserve better.[NB. I should point out here, that both the Mutants and the Lunies return after this, albeit briefly (once each, expect for Vultureman) but this is effectively the end for them. They don't get an "ending" beyond "The Circus Train", because they end up back in Bragg's train after their subsequent defeats.] Overgard’s biggest crime was that everything he wrote was out of synch with the rest of the show. I mean, I thought Bragg and his crow were quite amusing. The concept of a bounty hunter tracking down all the villains is actually quite cool. BUT the tone and manner in which these ideas were executed and the context in which they were employed is such a break with the standard Thundercats formula that it can only leave a sour taste in the mouth. Point being: if you’re going to (almost) write out ten major characters in a single episode you better come up with something appropriate to the task, i.e. not a weird old bounty hunter and his magical circus train.
“The Last Day” is an altogether different story: it has all the impact and flavour you’d expect from an end of show finale. It seems like they’d planned to end the series here because this episode establishes the events of “The Circus Train” as, to use a bit of comicbook lingo, “major in-continuity events”. The premise is exquisite: the Ancient Spirits of Evil are upset with Mumm-Ra’s inability to rid Third Earth of the Thundercats and berate him for losing his allies. Mumm-Ra objects: “they are worthless idiots who deserve to spend their remaining days in exile!” The Ancients spirits are not impressed and give Mumm-Ra “until sundown” to defeat the Thundercats or “today will be [his] last day on Third Earth”! But to prove their point the Ancient Spirits zap Mumm-Ra’s beloved pooch, Ma-Mutt, and send him into another dimension trapped in a plane of glass, Superman II style. Mumm-Ra responds by calling for so much power from the spirits that he triggers an earthquake which is of such magnitude that it will destroy Third Earth in “less than 12 hours”. Chaos ensues including forest fires, flash floods, and avalanches. Mumm-Ra has also mustered every last drop of power he has to transform himself into a giant super-sized form: “welcome to dooms day!” Mumm-Ra really gives the Thundercats a pasting in this episode. He destroys the Tower of Omens, the Thundercutter and the Thundertank and zaps Tygra, Cheetarah and Panthro in quick succession (they disappear, to where we’re not sure but it’s some sort “limbo”) before an epic duel with Lion-O that he actually wins! (YAY!!) He’s on top villainous form here: “Destruction is too easy a fate for you! No, I will not destroy you … I will bury you alive! Ha ha ha!” Despite these successes, the ancient spirits soon turn up again to remind him that he must destroy ALL the Thundercats and that his powers will diminish as his time runs out. The way the plot resolves itself is pretty cool by Thundercats’ usually contrived standards and I won’t reveal it here in case you haven’t seen it. Suffice to say this is a spectacular episode and arguably the best episode, and, with all the major villains exiled or defeated, it seems like a natural and fitting conclusion to the show. Strange, then, that the show did not end here. There had been speculation about whether or not Rankin/ Bass intended “The Last Day” as the finale or not. As you’ll read on that forum, the strongest evidence suggests that “Season 2″ (as it is presented on these discs) was originally split up into three separate seasons of 20 episodes each with Season 2 centered on the New Thundercats and the Lunataks (see: Season 2, Volume 1), Season 3 concerning the Treasues of Thundera (as outlined in this review so far) and Season 4 consisting of the episodes after “The Last Day”. So, viewed this way, it was simply a season finale (which just happened to write out all the major villains) OR the producers were not sure if they would get a fourth season and so made it like a proper finale just in case.
|Mumm-Ra Superman IIed|
The question is, then, should “The Last Day” have been the final episode? This brings me to (so-called) “Season 4″, which comprises the twenty episodes on the remaining four discs. It starts with a five-parter called “Return to Thundera” by Peter Lawrence in which the Thundercats, now free of enemies, leave Third Earth to establish a new base on New Thundera. They leave Tygra and Pumyra behind on Third Earth (great! leave the two least utilised characters behind) as a safety precaution. Almost as soon as they leave, the Ancient Spirits of Evil go back on their punishment to Mumm-Ra, restore him to the present dimension, and give him a new pyramid on New Thundera with which to wreak havoc. I had to check the name on this one because the logic of the plot is positively Overgardian: there is a gyroscope in the centre of New Thundera which controls the planet’s gravity. Um … what? Furthermore, this gyroscope is controlled by a guardian called Jaguara. Wasn’t New Thundera formed when fragments of the old Thundera came together? How then did this gyroscope and its guardian get there? You’d think after 110 episodes of Thundercats that this reviewer would have learnt to stop asking questions like that. But, each time you’ve readjusted yourself, each time you’ve double-thinked your way through another plot-hole, they go and nail you again, and again, and again!! “Return to Thundera” did make me wonder why this show was continuing. These episodes are turgid and tired and, after “The Last Day”, it is difficult to enjoy them. The one thing I will say in its favour is that the artwork seems vastly improved from the previous hundred and odd episodes. Mumm-Ra now has nifty shadow effects under his eyes when he speaks and the animation for his transformation into “Mumm-Ra the Everliving” is as spectacular as it has ever been. But cool artwork can’t save what is, in truth, an increasingly sorry excuse for a cartoon show being artificially kept on its last legs. I finished “Return to Thundera Part 5″ thinking “right, so Mumm-Ra’s triumphant return ended—predictably—with total failure, where can the show go from here?” Even Mumm-Ra himself is tired and pleads with the Ancient Spirits to leave him to rest. He’s had enough of fighting the Thundercats because he never ever wins. It’s quite revealing, because Mumm-Ra usually gets all of the best lines in Thundercats so if he’s feeling weary that means the writers must have been feeling weary too and (whether consciously or not) they transferred that feeling of tiredness to their favourite character. If I had to put a marker down for when Thundercats officially “Jumped the Shark”, it would be here.
|The Mutants caged in Captain Bragg’s circus train|
Unfortunately, the show never really recovers. New recurring characters such as Charr and Jaguara and lame one-shot villains such as Two-Time, Frogman, Malcar, Screw Loose, Shadowmaster (with Shadow Ape!!), and Amortus crop up with diminishing returns—they seem like shallow excuses to make more plastic action figures to wring the last sour drop of milk from a franchise clearly in its death throes. We could have seriously done without episodes as dull as “The Mossland Monster”, “Ma-Mutt’s Confusion” or the mind-numbing “Swan Song” (an Overgard): the titles alone tell you all you need to know about those ones. The drudgery reaches its nadir in the awful Overgard episode “Cracker’s Revenge” in which Captain Bragg meets Captain Cracker. Snarfer, who is getting pizza (yip pizza again!) from Third Earth, enlists the aid of—you guessed it—that other Overgard original, the loathsome Mandora the Evil Chaser—give me a break. I don’t need to tell you anymore, though I should note that it is in this episode that the Lunataks make their brief and totally wasted return. Even Bill Ratter turns in probably his worst episode, “Touch of Amortus”, which features perhaps the show’s most annoying one-shot villain. The only decent episode in the entire batch is “The Zaxx Factor” and that is almost 100% down to the unexpected (and very welcome) return of the hilarious Vultureman for a “one night only” type of deal. The show’s finale, “The Book of Omens” is entrusted to Overgard (who else?) and is anti-climactic in that it is neither shockingly awful nor sufficiently epic. The Mutants, Lunataks, Tygra and Pumyra don’t even appear, which is disappointing considering a random massive turtle creature does. But to be perfectly honest with you, I was just glad it was over. It comes to something when you look back at mediocre Lunataks episodes such as “Together We Stand” with a hint of fondness.
|“Season 4″ (the last 20 episodes) featured better artwork and almost nothing else of note|
Every show has a natural cycle beyond which it should not and cannot progress, let’s call it “the point of exhaustion”. Which leads me to the unsurprising conclusion that Thundercats should have ended at episode 110: “The Last Day”. It had arguably used up all its lives before then—the introduction of the New Thundercats and the Lunataks was stretching it, the re-formation of New Thundera was taking it to breaking it, the umpteenth resurrection of Mumm-Ra and introduction of ever less inspired new characters was just taking the proverbial Michael. The last twenty episodes of Thundercats are a struggle to get through, even for a self-proclaimed fan. They left me wondering whether the issue over showing Season 2 in the UK was matter of quality control—perhaps the controller of the BBC had real problems with letting the kids of Britain watch a show that average. Was it William Overgard’s fault? I don’t think you can lay it at his door. If nothing else, his episodes were so genuinely awful that you can’t really call them “average”. But it’s clear that all of the other writers were just tired with the show, they’d just had enough and committed the cardinal sin of letting the audience know it. Mumm-Ra is simply not the same after his return in “Return to Thundera”. As his plots become more and more tired, and his defeats become more and more routine, he loses whatever sense of maliciousness or menace he once had. By the end of the show he’s become a joke being zapped at whim by the Ancient Spirits of Evil for his continued failures. It’s sad to see—much like these final few episodes. If you’ve never seen the end of Thundercats I recommend that you watch until “The Last Day” and then STOP. Pretend the rest of it doesn’t happen, you’ll thank me for it one day.