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"Spiral Zone": Earth’s Most Powerful Sci-Fi Returns!

by on January 5, 2007

Thanks to Batman:The Animated Series‘ great success, today’s kids seem to prefer spandex to spacesuits, but in the mid to late 80s the airwaves were crowded with a number of prominent sci-fi series like The Transformers, The Centurions, and Silverhawks. Unfortunately the two very best shows of this period quickly slipped into obscurity due to ineffectual merchandising. The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers finally arrived on DVD in 2004, and now, thanks to one very dedicated fan, the fantastic Spiral Zone joins it.

Japanese oneThis Mad Max meets Dawn of the Dead action blockbuster has its origins in a rare mid 80s Japanese toy line brought over to the U.S. in 1987 after an unflattering makeover. Unfortunately, the American toys suffered from spotty distribution, and after one season the Spiral Zone cartoon vanished into the ether without so much as a fan club to keep the name alive. It was not forgotten by all however, and now all 65 episodes have been independently brought to DVD by Spiral-Zone.com creator Chris Millar. For more on those events please see the accompanying interview.

Though there are some similarities with team-based high tech combat shows like G.I. Joe, Spiral Zone stands out from its contemporaries due to its intelligent, creative plots, excellent animation, and dark setting. Like Armored Trooper Votoms there is considerable emphasis on tactics and a realistic military feel, and unlike Cobra the villains are actually clever and dangerous. Every episode is packed with action and dripping with foreboding atmosphere.

The saga begins in the near future when a spurned military scientist turns outlaw to pursue global domination. Calling himself Overlord, he places half the planet under his control by spreading his fearsome zone generators that block out the sun and reduce anyone nearby to a zombie-like state. The victims, or zoners, are still capable of accomplishing complex tasks, but have no free will and are horribly scarred. Some of these Overlord uses as troops, but major operations are conducted by his ruthless band of mercenaries known as the Black Widows. Both he and the Widows have undergone a process that makes them immune to the zone’s mind control powers but not the scarring.

“The zombies are a problem, but I can get 400 channels.”

It’s easy enough to imagine the zone as a metaphor for the communist menace, which was still very much a concern when the show was conceived in late 1986. Overlord’s relentless push to conquer the globe and his subjects’ lack of free will are right in step with western perceptions of the U.S.S.R. Not to mention that the scarring caused by the zone is red.

As during the Cold War the loss of many critical areas to the zone causes major disruptions to the free world’s trade and energy supply. The military creates a small squad of crack troops known as the Zone Riders to lead the campaign to roll back the zone. Commanded by decorated veteran Dirk Courage, the multinational Riders wear special suits made from the extremely rare element Neutron 90 that protect them from the effects of the zone. They live on a steady diet of daring commando raids that often turn personal when friends and family fall victim to the zone.

The thrilling pilot episode “Mission Into Evil” starts things off with a bang. A military plane transporting the last known supply of Neutron 90 crash-lands in the zone over the crumbling remains of New York City, Overlord’s base of operations. The Riders are sent in to recover the element, but Dirk is more concerned with rescuing the pilot, an old war buddy. This episode is strongly reminiscent of John Carpenter’s cult classic Escape from New York, and it concludes with a similarly nail-biting escape.

“OK, YES, I lost the map. Does it look like I have pockets?”

Dirk’s (voiced by Dan Gilvezan: Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends‘ Spider-Man) family is all gone, and he is consumed by his mission at the expense of everything else, including the feelings he and Russian teammate Katerina share. A great role model for girls, she is every bit as brave and capable as her male comrades, although the overprotective Dirk sometimes refuses to give her the most dangerous assignments. Tank (voiced by Neil Ross: G.I. Joe‘s Shipwreck) supplies most of the team’s charisma, tossing out jokes or macho sentiments in what seems a thinly veiled but enjoyable Arnold Schwarzenegger impression. As his son is lost in the zone, he strongly empathizes with similarly shattered families.

The four remaining Riders get the occasional moment in the spotlight, but spend most of the time in support roles. The cynic would suppose that the Japanese Hiro (Michael Bell: G.I. Joe‘s Duke) and black Max are included mainly to give the otherwise very homogenous cast some diversity.

The villains may be less memorable than goofy maniacs like Cobra Commander, but they are certainly more threatening. Having started out with the noble intention of ending war, Overlord is not pure evil, but he has little mercy for anyone who stands in his way or fails him. The Widows constantly jockey to become Overlord’s number two, with the ludicrously named Duchess Dire having the inside track as his main squeeze. While Overlord respects Dirk as a worthy adversary, master of disguise Bandit blames him for his brother’s death and desperately wants revenge.

Half Price Sunday at SuperCuts.

High speed duels between heavily armed vehicles account for most of the action, which is slightly less bloodless than G.I. Joe. However there are many unsettling casualties if you count the victims of the zone. Notably, in the pilot the Widows play a jaunty tune on an organ to lure children into the zone, and a terrified young boy is zoned as his mother screams helplessly.

There are occasional moments of levity beyond the horrible closing “jokes” that were de rigueur in 80s animation. One soldier remarks that he just saw Rambo 12 for , which doesn’t seem so farfetched now that Stallone is working on film 4. In what may be an animation product placement first, Tank buys a recuperating little girl a Pound Puppy, Spiral Zone‘s sister toy line. It even gets a close-up.

Spiral Zone‘s slightly anime-influenced Japanese and Korean animation is a cut above most of its contemporaries, and it holds up well today. Among the talented design staff was a young Bruce Timm, later of Batman:The Animated Series fame. Spiral Zone‘s action is smooth and well choreographed, the backgrounds detailed, and the zoners impressively creepy for a kids’ show. The series’ only significant flaw is that the primary vehicle and equipment designs follow the blocky, garishly colored U.S. toy line instead of the realistic Japanese one.

“Look, the commercial break’s only 2 minutes long, and this getup’s got 17 zippers.”

Fitting for its time, Spiral Zone has a pounding soundtrack with guitars frequently wailing away. The memorably electric theme “Earth’s most powerful soldiers…” was sung by Steve Tyrell, later to become a moderately successful crooner thanks to a performance in Steve Martin’s Father of the Bride.

Now, this independently produced DVD set is primarily an as-is presentation of the studio master tapes, so the video and audio clarity is naturally a notch below remastered series. Nevertheless it looks pretty darn good for its age, probably better than it ever did going out over the airwaves.

As for the excellent extras, I’d first like to point out that all the show’s very subtle bumpers are included, for example: “Zone Riders, looks like we’re coming to a commercial!” If the studios really wanted my DVD money they’d give you the option to play the appropriate vintage commercials during older shows.

Nine 5-minute audio clips are included from the story cassettes originally packed with the American Spiral Zone toys. Each simple but enjoyable tale features a different character, and they take one back to the corny overacting of radio serials.

“For crying out loud, the number 5 meal is the same price. Just give me the damn curly fries.”

Next there are extensive collections of intriguing rough storyboard excerpts and beautiful animation cels. Some of the cel art is printed on the discs to great effect.

For fans the real highlight is the interview with Spiral Zone supervising director Pierre De Celles, veteran of many other series such as Jem and Sonic the Hedgehog. He nearly gets carried away by his boundless enthusiasm, but relates many interesting details about the grueling production that required him to complete 65 episodes in a mere 11 months. He wanted to take the series in a more fantastic sci-fi direction, but the producers and sponsors discouraged anything too unusual.

Spiral Zone:The Complete DVD Collection is a must-have for fans. This superb show has stood the test of time, and the bonus features are a treat. Fans of quality sci-fi shows like Galaxy Rangers and Starship Troopers Roughnecks or intelligent, well-animated action in general should give it a look. To borrow from Overlord’s infamous opening credits threat, “Watch it, or pay the consequences!”

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