"Masters of the Universe" Season 1, Part 2 Continues To Impress
The first half of the first season of 2002’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe struck a good balance between establishing the world of Eternia and giving viewers some effective character-specific episodes. With most of the world-building out of the way, the second half of the season (lately released to DVD) is given over to showing how the characters tick. It is in this batch of episodes that the series began to reach its potential, and truly become a successful re-invention of the original Filmation series.
Highlights include “The Mystery of Anwat Gar”, which introduces Sy-Klone and features a noticeably realistic resolution of a type not seen too often on the show. There’s also “Orko’s Garden”, complete with a revamped version of Filmation villain Evilseed; “Snake Pit”, a well-directed episode featuring the first of what would later become many appearances from the Snake Men; “The Sweet Smell of Victory,” featuring the introduction of Stinkor, a character even Filmation avoided in the original series; and “Separation”, from classic-series writer Larry DiTillio, in which we get our first glimpse of the new version of Hordak alongside a truly apocalyptic threat to Eternia itself.
Topping it all is the excellent two-part season finale, “The Council of Evil”, where Skeletor at last comes up with a plan that stands a serious chance of working. Sacrificing his Evil Warriors by having them captured, he lures the Masters into a false sense of security, and then actually recruits a new group of formerly unaligned villains from previous episodes who prove to be quite an effective group when put into action. This story and its cliffhanger ending work extremely well, and are an excellent incentive to watch the next volume.
It’s apparent from these later episodes that the series as a whole takes itself far more seriously than other versions of the franchise—perhaps too seriously at times. While not an inherent problem with the show, it is another reminder that the show was definitely being targeted at an audience older than Cartoon Network would have liked. Elements such as Orko are played down; and that as well as the new unspeaking Cringer/Battle Cat mean that He-Man himself more often than not hasn’t got anyone he can talk with. So he is restricted to appearing in the latter part of most episodes while the rest of the Masters take up the spotlight, which is in stark contrast to the Filmation show, where he was a natural dominating force. While it’s a bonus to see many of these secondary character finally receive some characterization, I think the series could have done with giving a little more memorable personality to He-Man himself, of the type seen in the last three episodes on this set in particular.
Other aspects of the series, such as the animation, music and voice acting cannot be faulted, with the animation in some episodes pushing the envelope quite far. That all the characters are packed with an extraordinary amount of detail makes the animation quality of the series even more surprising. The music from Joseph LoDuca also comes into its own in these episodes, with some appropriately sweeping themes heard during the many battles. The voice acting, from many Ocean Group luminaries, is similarly of an excellent standard, and their natural-sounding performances in a comparatively rare non-anime series effectively show off their range.
When these episodes were produced, there was still quite a lot of enthusiasm and hope for the re-launch, and there weren’t many doubts that the toyline would be a success. The series builds naturally and satisfyingly to the cliffhanger ending, with comparatively little forced into the story thanks to any marketing concerns. Most of the New Council of Evil, for instance, never had any action figures, although there are, perhaps unsurprisingly, token appearances from a couple of the ubiquitous He-Man and Skeletor variants that flooded the original toyline. There was still, however, an apparent divergence between the series’ and the toyline’s target audiences, which is even reflected in the jarring end-of-episode morals. While the generally serious-skewing tone makes for an entertaining television series, it is one of the clearest explanations for the failure of the new line to click with younger audiences in the same way that the contemporary Transformers: Armada reboot did.
Once again BCI does the series great justice, presenting these episodes in anamorphic widescreen format, and including those end-of-episode morals. Like the first volume, this is a three-disc release, with the third disc given over to extras. These extras, though, as with the first volume, are still extremely lacking compared to the ones on BCI’s previous He-Man and She-Ra DVD releases. Moreover, the episodes on the main discs come with just two commentaries this time around, which are repeated verbatim on the extras disc as video commentaries—although this time, there isn’t even any new commentary material after the episode finishes. The commentary for “Orko’s Garden” in particular is a pretty superfluous affair, having little to do with the actual episode itself, and more to do with how cartoons in general are produced, with little facts like “the voices are recorded first”. The commentary for “Snake Pit” is much better and more focused, thanks to the participation of writer Steven Melching.
The extras disc also features a neat but brief look at some of the original voice acting sessions for the series. Only a few actors are featured—notably Cam Clarke (He-Man), Lisa Ann Beley (Teela), Gabe Khouth (Orko), and Michael Donovan (King Randor)—but some of the other participants seem to have declined to let themselves be seen and their images are blurred out. It gives an interesting insight into how these few actors took to their roles, and it’s most interesting to see Cam Clarke delivering a full version of the series’ opening narration that was unwisely ultimately discarded. There are also some detailed profiles of the villains, as well as galleries of these evil forces (to complement the first volume’s hero galleries). The final extras worthy of note are full-length animatics for three episodes, which, like the video commentaries, make for a disappointing waste of space. Aside from this, however, there’s nothing further about the production of the first season, the first batch of the Image comics, or the launch of the new toyline itself. It’s quite a missed opportunity, although perhaps understandable, considering the toyline was clearly not selling as well as hoped for even before the second season began broadcasting. Hopefully BCI will put more substantial extras on their final animated series boxset.
Ultimately, though, the end of the first season of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe acquits itself very well, doing justice to an old concept by managing to carefully balance an ongoing arc with some refreshing stand-alone stories. In hindsight, the first season of this series was the true highpoint of the short-lived 2002 Masters of the Universe re-launch, before a drastic merchandise-led change in focus in the second season in an ill-fated attempt to revitalize the line’s sales. Even so, the series still stands out as a pleasing non-anime action series aimed at an older audience, a sight that is still comparatively rare today. Fans of the original series should find it an excellent extrapolation of much of the older series’ potential, and anyone who has yet to step into the He-Man universe will find the new series a first-rate introduction to the world of Eternia and its many heroes and villains. Needless to say, this volume comes highly recommended.