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"Masters of the Universe" Season Two Slithers To A Successful, If Premature, Ending

Some three years after BCI began releasing the original Filmation series, here at last is the final season of the 2002 iteration of Masters of the Universe.

By the time season two of the new series began airing, the toyline itself was in deep freefall, thanks most notably to horrendous distribution problems that infamously put out dozens of variants of He-Man and Skeletor simultaneously, at the expense of virtually all the unique supporting characters. Consequently, by the time season two actually finished broadcasting back in early 2004, there was really little doubt there wouldn’t be a third season. This made, shall we say, for an interesting viewing experience. With the benefit of five years’ worth of hindsight, it’s interesting to see how the series’ strengths and weaknesses had an effect on how the series was perceived while the re-launched line was still being marketed.

The first episode, “The Last Stand”, concludes the first season’s suspenseful cliffhanger and finally allows He-Man to really cut loose against Skeletor’s new Council of Evil and band of Evil warriors. While it’s a satisfying conclusion, the fight scenes at the end of the episode seem oddly aloof, as three whole minutes go by with no dialogue at all in a free-for-all melee. It’s easy to imagine younger viewers becoming a little bored while He-Man fights silently, even if such sequences are similar to the many dialogue-free fights in the series’ opening three-part story. There is also a strange, though not consistent, de-emphasis on He-Man himself at times, with some episodes only giving him a handful of lines. In this, we glimpse one of the series’ most obvious defects: it could be far too action-driven. It may seem ludicrous to complain about too much action in an action/adventure series, but it leads, particularly the latter episodes, to a lack of real character development.

The introduction of the Snake Men as the new primary adversaries was another reason it lost some of its focus. (The series was even abruptly retitled Masters of the Universe Vs. The Snake Men for the last ten episodes, a decision that no doubt reflected the toyline’s increasingly lethargic performance.) At least we got several consecutive episodes of interconnected stories, a technique last seen in the 65-episode The New Adventures of He-Man. King Hsss does make for quite a serious and intimidating villain, and is something of a refreshing contrast to Skeletor. The main problem is that he’s simply not quite as memorable as Skeletor. It was also unfortunate that the far more interesting and diverse season-one villains, including Skeletor himself, were sidelined. With a few exceptions, most of the large cast of villains were relegated to scene-filling and acting “generically evil”.

But the season’s latter part did nevertheless include two of the best episodes, “The Price of Deceit” from classic series writer Larry DiTillio, and “The Power of Grayskull” from Dean Stefan. Both added much to the series mythology, and in a far more organic fashion than the more overtly market-driven introduction of the Snake Men. In many ways they pointed toward unrealized future plans: specifically, an updated version of the Evil Horde, with a reimagined version of Hordak appearing in both episodes. “The Power of Grayskull” is especially impressive for adding so much mythology while still providing a clever one-off tale that wouldn’t have been out of place in the original Filmation series. Another notable episode would be “Of Machines and Men” from Michael Halperin, the writer of the Filmation series’ story bible. That one gave us the second season’s only real one-on-one match between He-Man and Skeletor.

The season, and series, ended with “Awaken the Serpent”, which featured King Hsss finally raising the gargantuan snake god Serpos. As befits a season finale, the episode is extremely action-packed, and does a better job of showing off the characters’ personalities than the season opener; it even manages to fit in one last appearance for Skeletor. While the animation for the season retained the high standards of season one, the animators really did an especially good job with this final episode, with some extremely competent handling of a sense of scale as He-Man battles against a mountain-sized, triple-headed snake. That the near season-long subplot with King Hsss and the Snake Men was wrapped up in a single episode is probably the only thing that weakens the story, and again comes back to the way the series eventually emphasized action over character. However, this did at least give the series some measure of closure and a fittingly epic ending. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how the makers could ever have topped the action in this episode.

Of course, the series’ writers never knew the show would be cancelled, which means that the season introduced some nagging plot threads that were clearly set-ups for bigger events, most particularly the three appearances by Hordak. Overall, though, this didn’t particularly detract from the viewing experience, though it did underline how much of a shame it was that the series ended as soon as it did. Indeed, even with all the action going on in the last few episodes, in many ways this season was slightly more balanced than season one, with some episodes containing more of the light-hearted elements seen in the original series, notably Orko. If the second season had been as long as the first, I’m sure it would have been held up as possibly the best version of Masters of the Universe that had been seen. But it simply wasn’t to be.

As mentioned, the animation keeps to the high standards of season one, and we are even treated to two new and much improved transformation sequences of Prince Adam to He-Man, correcting one of the first season’s few visual let-downs. On the audio front, Joseph LoDuca’s scores continue to maintain an appropriately ‘epic’ sound, building nicely on the themes introduced in the previous season. Once again the voice cast turn in exemplary performances. Particular mention goes to series’ leads Cam Clarke and Brian Dobson, who in addition to portraying He-Man and Skeletor did double duty as King Grayskull and King Hsss respectively.

With this final season set, we are finally given some meaty extras that delve a little into the creation of the 2002 toyline. Most significant are a feature on and interviews with the Four Horsemen designers who created the revamped look of all the characters. The first feature details exactly how they actually made their figures, and it is quite illuminating and also (conveniently enough) doubles as an advertisement for Mattel’s newest range of fan-targeted Masters of the Universe figures. The interviews with the Four Horsemen artists are much more historically focused, detailing their careers, and what work they did on the 2002 line.

Also accompanying these features are a series of interviews with Mattel design staff. These are also quite illuminating, and confirm that the line was targeted equally toward adult collectors and children. (Ironically, it is likely that this attempt at dual appeal was one reason the line failed, as it wasn’t quite able to please enough children.) Most interesting are the contributions of marketer Tim Kilpin, who worked on the original Masters toyline. With this season set focusing on the Snake Men, Kilpin talks about how and why the Snake Men were added to the original line, and how even the original series ended before aspects of a new backstory could be added to the old line—the same fate that ironically befell the new line.

Although the toy-based pieces are excellent extras for the set, the lack of any real retrospective documentary on the actual animated series itself seems like a real oversight. Another notable omission is any deep discussion of the comics based on the new line, which featured contributions by most of the fans who also worked on these very DVD sets. But possibly they weren’t covered because they were cancelled by Mattel after the creators pre-emptively re-introduced one of the series’ classic characters in a charity comic without him having a new toy yet.

Five episodes come with commentaries, but as with the past two sets they feel a little unfocussed, with most the participants simply reacting to what is on screen rather than talking more about how the stories came about. There are some interesting snippets of information to be gleaned, though, including an explanation as to why the distinctly outdated end-of-episode morals were included; they were put in for international distribution only, presumably to remind foreign viewers of the old series. On that note, it’s worth pointing out that all these morals are once again included in their correct position at the end of all the episodes.

By far the most interesting extra to be had on the set is a comic book version of the unproduced script to episode 40 of the series. Entitled “Captured”, the story details the flipside of King Hsss’s temporary defeat, as Skeletor and his warriors return to exact some revenge on the fallen king. Like the series by this point, it’s mostly a series of action-driven events to get from point A to point B, but there are hopeful hints of some good characterization that would have been worth looking forward to, offering a truly fascinating glimpse of what might have been. The comic itself is drawn by He-Man superfan artist Emiliano Santalucia, and he does a good job straddling his unique take on the characters and their animation models. Indeed, it is only weakened by the fact that it was designed as a season opener, and thus ends on a never-to-be-resolved cliffhanger. The comic itself is sadly only included in a PDF format, and it would have been nicer if we could have had a printed version of the story (currently only available as a Best Buy exclusive), but its inclusion is none-the-less very much appreciated.

Having sung BCI’s praises so much, I do have to report that at least one of the discs I had to hand was rife with authoring errors. Given that many other BCI animated boxsets have also had encoding issues (going back to the very first Filmation He-Man set in 2005, and most recently including volume one of Masters of the Universe 2002), it’s inexcusable that even with this final release there are still problems with these discs. It’s also a pretty poor reflection on BCI’s quality-control system.

The 2002 He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was a well-intentioned modern reimagining of the original series, with a much deeper focus on general mythology and world-building, and freed from the sometimes hackneyed attempts at moralizing. But it fell between two stools. Had the series been aimed squarely at a more mature audience from the outset, then it would probably have fared a lot better than it actually did, and would have even made for a half-decent stable mate for Justice League at times. Likewise, if the makers had made the series more accessible and fun for children, like the modern Transformers series, the line would probably have been a notable success and the show would have run for at least another season. As it is, the series’ lack of identity stifles it somewhat.

However, simply due to its being well-made, it was ultimately a very entertaining series that managed to infuse new life into decades’ old concepts, and even with the lack of character development in later episodes, remains a laudable attempt at a home-grown serious-minded action series at a time when dubbed anime mostly dominated that specific market. As such, season two of the series comes highly recommended, snake scales and all, especially for those who never managed to catch it the first time around.

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