"G.I. Joe" Season 1.1: High-Speed, Low-Drag 1980's Idiocy
In 1982, Hasbro revived its “G.I. Joe” line of toys with the help of Marvel Comics and writer Larry Hama, replacing the 12-inch archetypal “American fighting man” with a smaller-scaled team of military operatives. Hama repurposed chunks of a proposal he had made to Marvel for a comic called “Fury Force” and began working on personality profiles while Hasbro commissioned some animation for TV commercials for the toys and the tie-in comic book. The new toy line and comics were a massive success, and Hasbro soon commissioned an animated mini-series which premiered in 1983. The mini-series led to a second the next year and then to an on-going animated series the year after, and the combination of the TV show, the toys, and the comics cemented G.I. Joe’s place in the consciousness of a generation of children. Hasbro and Shout! Factory are now delivering a second love letter to that generation of children, following the re-release of The Transformers with G.I. Joe Season 1.1. This new 4-disc DVD set collects the first three G.I. Joe mini-series and the first 7 episodes of the animated series.
The opening credits to the animated series, quoted above, neatly summarize the core concept of G.I. Joe: a team of military operators engage in battles on land, sea, and sky against the armies of the would-be world dictators Cobra. The whole concept is very much a product of its time, with the franchise launching as the Reagan-era military built-up steam. The “ruthless terrorist organization” Cobra neatly combined the dual fears of the era: the Red Army hordes massing at the borders of Western Europe and the rise of radical terrorism throughout Europe and the Middle East all through the 1970’s. The combination of the two might have been a major contributor to the popularity of the show at the time, but despite its timely relevance, G.I. Joe doesn’t seem to have aged very badly at all (with a few fashion tragedy exceptions). It is as ludicrously unrealistic now as it was then.
G.I. Joe certainly suffers from many of the same technical problems as The Transformers, although on the whole it seems to suffer from slightly fewer of them. Hasbro broke with the tradition of animated TV shows at the time and paid for full animation for both shows, rather than using the less expensive partial animation techniques pioneered by Hanna-Barbera and perfected (if that is the right word to use) by Filmation. Both shows probably looked way better than any other comparable cartoon at the time, but the animation was still chunky and clunky, especially by latter-day standards. Animation mistakes abound, such as crowd shots with characters who are supposed to be elsewhere, recycled backgrounds that cause continuity errors, and the rare occasion when the wrong voice comes out of a character. G.I. Joe has some problems with characters going off-model, mostly involving errors in costuming and miscoloring (some more unfortunate than others), but it seems to avoid many of the more egregious errors that plague The Transformers, perhaps because the animators had an easier time with human beings than giant blocky robots.
As for the writing, the first two mini-series are distinguishable only in the details of plot. For all intents and purposes, the second is a remake of the first with a bigger budget and a bigger cast, and my general assessment of them hasn’t changed very much from when I revisited them with the DVD Battle Packs—this isn’t war as much as it’s playing at war, and we teens of the time would dutifully tune in despite our constant derision of the completely bloodless and non-lethal mayhem. For the most part, G.I. Joe seems content to do nothing more than tell ripping fast stories of grand adventure, happily dumping narrative coherence, logic, and a lot of laws of physical science if it means they can get to the next exotic venue faster to blow more stuff up. Like Transformers, G.I. Joe has a talent for sketching in characters quickly and vividly but thinly, but while Transformers is dominated by relatively few characters, G.I. Joe seems to do a much better job at utilizing its large cast. This is no small feat, considering how fast Hasbro added characters to the line in three years. There are several recurring elements throughout the show, like the rivalry between the ethnic stereotypes Spirit and Storm Shadow, and the growing attraction between the Joes Flint and Lady Jaye, but for the most part, the mini-series and any individual episode of the show stands alone and independent of the others. This may even be one reason why I find I still prefer G.I. Joe over The Transformers. Transformers seems to be aiming for giant-scale space opera epic and, in my opinion, misses almost completely in its first season. G.I. Joe has much lower expectations for itself and hits exactly what it aims for, which may be the only thing related to G.I. Joe that manages to hit what was aimed at.
The third mini-series, “The Pyramid of Darkness,” is more of the same as the first two, starting with the hijacking of a space shuttle that goes so far past insulting our intelligence that it moves into glove-to-the-face, challenge-intelligence-to-a-fatal-duel territory. From there, it’s more exotic locales, more strange threats, more Joe teamwork outwitting Cobra in-fighting, and lots more laser battles and property damage but no fatalities before good triumphs and evil slinks away to plot and scheme again. Writing for this mini-series is also credited to Ron Friedman, but already seems to show the unmistakable mark of Steve Gerber, who was the story editor for the first season of the series. Something like the “Fatal Fluffies” (tiny cute furry aliens that turn into giant, horned monstrosities) seems like one of the perverse concepts Gerber would have come up with for his run on Marvel Comics’ Defenders, and by the time the show finds ways to get both the silent, masked commando Snake Eyes and the villainous Cobra Commander in drag, one is left thinking that this is either idiocy of the highest order or something that’s knowingly, subversively ridiculous.
Watching these episodes again as an adult, I opt for the latter, especially when Gerber’s same flair for the subversively strange are so visible in the first few episodes of the regular TV show. The episode “Red Rocket’s Glare” was penned by Mary Skrenes, one of Gerber’s frequent collaborators, and is rooted in the idea that fast food franchise restaurants will destroy America. Even though Gerber wasn’t very happy with the final result, it’s still a surprising message to see in what was intended as a glorified toy commercial. The final episode on disc 4, “The Funhouse,” also seems to have Gerber’s sense of the weird as the Joes must fight their way out of a lethal funhouse of deathtraps, like balloons filled with hallucinogenic gas and the world’s deadliest roller coaster (even though the “circus of death” had already been done in “The Revenge of Cobra”). There are also smaller sly winks from the writers to the audience like the “smash your TV” ending of “Satellite Down” and the abrupt but logical end to a standoff situation in “Jungle Trap” (penned by no less than Paul Dini). G.I. Joe seems to pull off the same trick Gerber pulled on Defenders of presenting characters who face down the utterly ridiculous with seriousness and sincerity, allowing the audience to cheer for them while simultaneously laughing at them. It comes as a bit of a surprise that one of the more conventional episodes in this set was penned by Gerber himself, but from my memories and Gerber’s interviews, the more sublimely preposterous in season 1 is yet to come.
The children of the 80’s seeking a stroll down memory lane won’t do much better than what we get from Shout! Factory. G.I Joe Season 1.1 is delivered in two thinpack cases in a colorful cardboard sleeve, accompanied by a companion booklet of episode details, a sheet of temporary tattoos, and a few ads for the latest G.I. Joe merchandise. I can’t compare them to the earlier DVD release of the show from Rhino, but the video quality of the Shout! set is vastly improved from the DVDs available with the Hasbro DVD Battle Packs (see comparison stills here), and also include little niceties like chapter stops, DVD menus, and a marathon play option that shows multi-part episodes continuously. About the only place where these DVDs suffer by comparison is in the inclusion of the commercial bumpers at the commercial breakpoints (even with an “Insert Commercial Here” card flashing for a frame or two in one episode). According to Shout!, these were left in because some audio elements bled into the bumpers. Eliminating them would occasionally cut off sound early, so it’s a forgivable annoyance for what we get in return.
For bonus features, the first 3 discs include clips from an interview with writer Ron Friedman, where some of the topics he discusses include the way he conceptualized the show, how he views the Joes and Cobra as large, borderline dysfunctional families, and what he thinks of his slice of pop culture immortality. Friedman is quite an interesting interview subject, and his comments are highlighted by pitch-perfect clips from the show. If anything, the interviews prove frustrating because they’re rather short, totaling just over 15 minutes. As a result, he can’t really deal with anything in great depth, and doesn’t discuss how he linked up with Larry Hama, Hasbro, or Marvel Comics at all. Disc 4 contains a variety of bonuses: a half-dozen of the infamous “Knowing is Half the Battle” PSAs, three original toy commercials (which, as on The Transformers Season 1 set, have the kids’ faces digitally blurred out), and a surprisingly interesting archival film from 1963 that was Hasbro’s Toy Fair presentation introducing the original G.I. Joe. One can practically hear the dollar signs appearing in the eyes of the narrator as he discusses the retail opportunities presented by four action figures with countless accessory packs. Finally, popping this last disc in a computer will yield a PDF script of the episode “Jungle Trap,” complete with hand-written edits and changes.
I am still not entirely sure why I prefer G.I. Joe over The Transformers, although I do have some ideas on that. What is for sure is that my inner 13-year-old, which still holds an unreasonable affection for Stalker, Snake Eyes, Scarlett, Gung Ho, Flint, Lady Jaye, Roadblock, and the rest of the Joes, is doing cartwheels over the prospect of seeing G.I. Joe again after 25 years (and at the prospect of the massive complete series set coming soon). As with Transformers, Hasbro and Sunbow clearly did something right in making these cartoons, since they have inspired such rabid fanbases, and the Shout! Factory is to be commended for putting in such love and effort in putting these sets together. G.I. Joe Season 1.1 is pure, unadulterated, 1980’s idiocy at its finest, and thank heaven for that.
Check out the top 5 ways G.I. Joe was ahead of history here.