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"M.A.S.K.: The Complete Series" - A Toy Ad Without a Heart or Soul

There are a select handful of shows from the 1980s that elicit strong feelings of nostalgia in men of my generation: He-Man, Thundercats, Transformers, GI Joe and, of course, MASK. These shows have a number of things in common:

  • They were developed primarily to shift plastic toys.
  • They were aimed squarely and cynically at boys.
  • They each employed child psychologists to ensure that they were suitable for the ‘moral development’ of children.
  • They each featured annoying ‘comic’ sidekick characters as the emotional point-of-entry for the child viewer.
  • They mean little to anyone who did not grow up watching them.

MASK is guilty on all counts, and then some.

The “MASK” of the title stands for “Mobile Armored Strike Kommand”, a crack squad of special agents who wear various different masks that each have a name and a specific power; in addition, they travel in vehicles that are equipped with an array of weapons and the ability to transform. They battle pretty much exclusively against VENOM or the “Vicious Evil Network of Mayhem” (no, I am not making this up!), who have set of similar masks and vehicles. MASK also have a cool base equipped with a seemingly all-knowing talking computer.

The leader of MASK is Matt Trakker, who has blonde hair and no apparent emotions. He also has an annoying son called Scott who hangs around with a little robot called T-Bob who can transform himself into a scooter. VENOM are led by Miles Mayhem, who has a thick moustache and dresses in standard-issue dictator wear replete with meaningless medals.

In every episode VENOM concoct an elaborate plot to further some obscure evil end, and MASK stop them. After an initial disturbance by VENOM agents, Matt Trakker will ask his computer to “select the best suited agents” for the mission; it then diligently treats us to meticulous profiles of each agent, including their name, skills, and vehicle of choice. During this procedure, the agents drop whatever they are doing, even if they are at work (Honda MacLean is a schoolteacher who just walks out of class!) and head straight for Trakker’s base where they sit around a large round table and wait for a large mechanical device to place their special masks onto their heads. This whole routine takes up the first 5 minutes or so of each 20-minute episode, after which the MASK agents set to work foiling VENOM’s plan. Foiled, Miles Mayhem runs away shouting something along the lines of “I’ll get you next time, MASK!” and then one of the MASK team, usually Scott or T-Bob, says something funny, everyone laughs and the episode ends. Well, it doesn’t quite end, we’re treated to a little “moral for the day” starring Matt and Scott – more on this later.

So now you want to know if it is any good. In a word, the answer is “no”. This show is horrible. However, in the interests of balance I want to ensure that the good stuff gets a fair treatment.

The Good
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that MASK has a great theme tune. It’s classic 80s cheese, but it does get in your head and after a few episodes you can’t help but sing along. My wife has given me some funny looks over the past couple of weeks as she’s caught me warbling “Masked crusaaaaadderrrs / Working all the time, fighting crime, FIGHTING CRIME! / Secret raaaaiiiidddddeerrrs …” I should stop. Say what you want about the rest of the show, but it’s a great tune, arguably the best of these 80s shows, although Thundercats does give it a run for its money.

Another aspect of the show worthy of praise is the obsessive categorization and profiling. I mean there’s quite a lot to take in here. In addition to Trakker, there are at least 6 regular MASK members: Bruce Sato, Alex Sector, Gloria Baker, Honda MacLean, Brad Turner and Dusty Hayes. In addition, each member has their own mask which has a unique design and name of its own. For example, Alex has Jack Rabbit which allows him to fly, Bruce has Lifter which is like an anti-gravity gun. All the VENOM agents have their own masks too. This means that watching the show, not only do you need to remember who is who on the team, you have to remember what each person’s mask is like too. To complicate matters further, each person has a vehicle of choice they like to use. To stick with the examples of Alex and Bruce, they both tend to travel in Rhino the big truck. To make things even more complicated: the agents have different masks depending on the vehicle in which they travel. For example, Matt Trakker wears Spectrum when he’s in his trademark Thunderhawk (a red sports car that can fly), which is like Superman’s X-ray vision, but Ultra-Flash when he’s in Rhino, which is more like Cyclops from X-Men’s psychic blast. Oh and everyone has a codename too, which is sometimes used, sometimes not. Now usually I’d say that such an insane number of things for a kid to take on board would be a problem, but as James Kerwin on one of the extras mentions, little boys just LOVE this sort of thing. They love categorizing things, and knowing who has what powers etc. I mean as a vehicle for selling toys it is pretty much pitch perfect in appealing to its audience. Forget little boys even, I think men in general just get off on stuff like this.

The only other thing about MASK that belongs in the column marked ‘good’ is the fact that, while most other elements of the show are borderline abysmal, each episode is rather well paced, directed and edited. Jina Bacaar, who was one of the writers, mentions on the extras that the show was unusual in asking for the scripts to include point-by-point direction. So perhaps this is one area where the writers excelled themselves. In animation terms, taken in context, it is better than He-Man (let’s be honest Filmation were always awful) and about level with Thundercats. There are a few neat touches like reflection on glass, that you don’t always see in shows of this era. It doesn’t look as cheap as it sounds and feels.

The Bad
Oh boy, where do I even start with this abomination? Whichever way you look at it, this show is indefensible. It’s a soulless corporate enterprise designed to sell toys. Now you might say the same of He-Man or Thundercats, but the difference is that both of those had great moments and great people working on them: the likes of Paul Dini cut his teeth writing episodes of He-Man, whereas Thundercats at its best feels like the creative vision of Leonard Starr rather than a 20-minute toy commercial. In contrast, MASK feels like it was made by the suits. On the extras, two of the writers talked about how they had very strict guidelines within which to work, the sort of thing that made J. Michael Straczynski resign as head writer of The Real Ghostbusters. And that’s the feeling I get in general: there was no creative visionary, like a Starr or a Straczynski, driving this show. Episodes were written by jobbing writers and the writer’s bible (likely by some Jack Donaghy-type working in the compliance dept.). This is nowhere better demonstrated than in the character of Matt Trakker himself. In 65 entire episodes he shows not one iota of charisma, enthusiasm, or emotion. He’s coma-inducingly calm and completely dead behind the eyes. In fact, after 65 episodes you don’t learn much about him at all. It’s never explained how he seems to be a multi-millionaire, why he’s so hell bent on fighting VENOM, how he came to be the father of Scott, where the mother is, how he knows each of the agents, etc. There is no origin story. In fact, there is seemingly no continuity at all. Episodes seem to take place in a hermitically sealed and self-contained vacuum: a vehicle might be destroyed this week, it’s back shiny and new the next. Actions do not have consequences, plots have no impact on anything.

This brings me to my first specific gripe: episodes of MASK are crushingly routine. Every single show Miles Mayhem wants to get his hands on the MacGuffin so he can do evil deed X, and MASK apprehend him. Now, again, you might say that He-Man and Thundercats were same: every week Skeletor or Mumm-Ra would hatch an evil plan that is foiled by the heroes. But Skeletor had a cast of interesting and unusual creatures to draw from, and no two episodes seemed the same because He-Man might be facing off against Evelyn and Beastman this week, but Tri-Klops and Trapdoor the next; and the Thundercats were spoiled for villains (the Mutants, the Lunataks, Hammerhand, Grune, etc.etc.). Now with MASK, as I mentioned, there are a hell of a lot of characters. Miles Mayhem has a core of VENOM agents including Sly Rax (who is voiced to sound just like Jack Nicholson), Cliff Dagger, your generic half-wit henchman, and Vanessa Warfield, your token whip-wielding dominatrix mega***** (customary for all 80s toons). The trouble is that these characters are deployed almost identically in every single episode. This chap on the MASK message boards over at Matt-Trakker.com documented the appearances of every MASK and VENOM agent for the entire run in this spreadsheet. What you’ll see fairly quickly looking at that is that, ironically considering the long and drawn out selection process, the lineup of agents is pretty much the same in every episode. For the first 40 or so episodes it’s almost always Bruce, Alex, Gloria, Brad, Hondo and Buddie. I was actually predicting them before they came up. For a start, this defeats the whole concept of having a selection process. There seems to be absolutely no relationship at all between the specialties of the agents and the task at hand. It’s always just all of them, or at least most of them. On the VENOM side, this is even worse because it’s pretty much always Miles Mayhem and the three I mentioned above, for the entire 65-episode run. This lack of variety makes the show quite tough going. Not only is it routine on the level of narrative and outcome, but also of which characters we see and what they do.

This is compounded by the one-dimensionality of the characterization, which is itself compounded by the uniformly atrocious voice acting. As discussed, Matt Trakker is one of the blandest characters ever created, but none of the other MASK crew really have a personality either. And Miles Mayhem is hardly the great villain that the show needs. The voice actors sound like they were recorded underground and they sound uninterested and de-motivated throughout. This may be accounted for partly by the fact that most of them are played by just two VAs: Doug Stone and Brendan McKane. The standout performance is Mark Holloran as Sly Rax, which is essentially a Jack Nicholson impersonation – that’s the closest we get to someone with a bit of character.

Brennan Thicke plays Scott Trakker, possibly the most annoying character ever to appear on television. I refuse to believe that any child ever identified with Scott. He just needs to get lost. In fact, that’s what he seems to spend most of the time doing: getting himself lost. You see, Matt Trakker, while being a hero and the head of a crack squad of special agents, also happens to be the worst dad of all time. It’s clear from very early on that Matt simply is not cut out to be a single dad. His idea of looking after Scott is along the lines of “Hey Scott, it’s dangerous here, ermmm, why don’t you go to the space observatory, on your own all day … basically you need to bugger off, take T-Bob with you too” Invariably, Scott goes off and then somehow gets himself into trouble with VENOM. I lost count of the number of times Scott was in danger because of his father’s negligence.

Speaking of Scott, that brings me to another laughably appalling aspects of MASK: the end-of-the-show morals. The one from the end of “The Ultimate Weapon” had me laughing for some time:

SCOTT TRAKKER: Hey, look dad! Jeff’s hitchhiking. He’ll get to the soccer field way before us.

MATT TRAKKER: Maybe, but maybe not. Hitchhiking is dangerous. You never know who’s going to pick you up. The person who picks him up could be a VENOM agent, or even worse, a child molester!

SCOTT TRAKKER: Hey Jeff! How about you walk to the game with us? When it comes to hitchhiking, I say, “thumbs down”!

These are always completely unrelated to the preceding episode, and most of the time completely ridiculous. One of them shows T-Bob getting himself stuck in the refrigerator and Alex Sector telling us that it’s dangerous to put your head in the fridge!

The Downright Ugly
Finally, the very worst aspect of MASK is something I found offensive: its unfortunate use of the most horribly clichéd racial stereotypes. The most prominent example is Bruce Sato, who appears in almost every episode. Bruce is Japanese and speaks with a comical Japanese “wise man once say” accent. Now that is at least partly defensible, on the basis of verisimilitude, but what is much more difficult to take is the fact that he speaks almost exclusively in cryptic Yoda-like riddles. EVEN WORSE than that, is that while most characters don’t know what he’s talking about most of the time, Matt Trakker always knows instantly and then “translates” Bruce’s wise words for everyone else in the most patronizing manner possible. Here’s an excerpt I took down from “The Magma Mole”:

MATT TRAKKER: How’s it going guys?

ALEX SECTOR: Well, the Japanese have provided superb seismographic equipment. And our friend Bruce has been modifying it. Though, I must confess I’m not sure why.

BRUCE SATO: A whale cannot swim without moving the water.

GLORIA BAKER: Aw gee Bruce, can’t ya ever give us a break?

MATT TRAKKER: He just means that Magma Mole can’t cut through a rock without giving off a seismic wave, and we’re going to detect it.

What I hate about this is the fact that Trakker’s translation is intended to say “no, it’s okay, he’s talking sense, he’s one of us, you just need to understand him”. Which translated means “Japanese people are actually like this awful stereotype, you just need to know how to take them”. Obviously, that’s nonsense but it is indicative of the level of MASK‘s racial politics. The irony is that the show is obviously at pains to go out of its way to show racial diversity: Honda, one of the agents, is black; another, Julio Lopez, is Hispanic; MASK frequently work with various Native American tribes and locals from around the world. But they are generally so poorly conceived and so entrenched in stereotype that it is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry.

Extras
Diehard MASK fans have been deprived of a definitive boxset for years, and the complete MASK on DVD has been something of a holy grail that many fans once thought a pipe dream. Now Shout! Factory has delivered it, almost. This set comprises the 65 episodes of the original series but does not include the 10 episodes of the much-maligned second season or ‘racing series’ as it is known. This will no doubt irritate some completists. The ‘complete series’ moniker adorning the front of the box is a little misleading. The 65 episodes come on 12 discs in only 2 standard-sized cases, making this quite a compact set that is light on packaging – 6 DVDs in one case is quite the feat of engineering design. On the one hand, after witnessing the jaw-dropping five-star treatment that Time-Life gave The Real Ghostbusters a couple of years back, this feels like Shout! Factory are cutting down on production costs to maximize their margins, a bit cheeky considering the $100 price tag. On the other hand, I appreciate the efficiency: it doesn’t need to be any bigger and, unlike more lavish boxsets, will fit neatly on my shelf alongside my other DVDs. The discs themselves look nice with Matt Trakker in his mask on Volumes 1-3 and Miles Mayem in his on Volumes 4-6 (2 discs per volume).

For a set of this magnitude, you’d expect quite a few extras. Maybe I’ve just been so spoiled by The Real Ghostbusters and Thundercats sets that my expectations are now just wildly unrealistic, but I thought the extras on this were tremendously disappointing. There are only two extras on the whole 12 discs. Volume 3 disc 2 has “Unmasking MASK” featuring talking heads from Mel Gilden who wrote, wait for it, ONE episode of MASK (“The Creeping Terror”) and Jina Bacarr who wrote six (“The Sceptre of Rajim”, “The Lost Riches of Rio”, “Riddle of the Raven Master”, “The Lost Fleet”, “Follow the Rainbow and The Manakara Giant”) … and that’s it. Are you kidding me, that’s IT? Where are the directors Bruno Bianchi (incidentally, creator of Inspector Gadget) and Bernard Deyriès? Where are the dudes from DiC Entertainment? Don’t tell me they aren’t available, they were all over The Real Ghostbusters set. No offense intended to Gilden or Bacarr, but it’s really clear from their interviews that they were very minor cogs in the machinery of the MASK wheel, so why are they the sole representatives of those who worked on the show here? For something called “Unmasking MASK“, this is a very, very poor effort. To make matters worse, as Bacarr and Gilden talk they show us tantalizing screen shots of scripts and the series bible. But then bewilderingly, these materials aren’t available as extras on the set. There is no series bible, no concept art, nothing. And that is a little frustrating because in the little glimpse of them we get on this 15-minute excuse of a “retrospective feature”, they look genuinely fascinating.

The only other extra is found on volume 6, disc 2 and it is a 20-minute talking heads piece called “Saturday Morning Krusaders” featuring a bunch of American comedians and writers I’ve never heard of or seen before. I’ll list them here in case you have: Eric Price, Will Herndon, Deric A. Hughes, Brad Hansen, Tory Mell, James Kerwin, and Tom Clark. Kerwin is easily the most insightful commentator on why the show was successful, and Clark is easily the funniest. But all-in-all it feels like a celebration of mediocrity. Few, if any of these people seem like they have genuine love for the show.

Conclusion

On which note, I will close: how can you love that which has no heart or soul? MASK is very much a product of its time and “product” is perhaps the operative word there. It feels like a something made by accountants who have calculated that X many characters and vehicles showcased for Y amount of time will yield Z amount of profits. I wish I could be kinder to this show: its awesome theme tune and people’s fond memories of it (my own included) seem to deserve more. Hell, the toys deserve more; I mean they were awesome toys. But this is what it is: a cynical commercial enterprise churned out without feeling or emotion or creativity or vision. And in a way the slightly shoddy cut-price “get it out there” production that Shout! Factory have given us here is befitting of a show that was made by the same mantra.

If you are vaguely nostalgic about it, please leave your fond memory intact. If you have never seen it before, I urge you not to bother. In short, there is no reason for anyone who is not a diehard fan of MASK to buy this – unless you want my review copy!

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