Ah the 1980s, a period of great music, questionable fashion, and unrivaled animated series succession. Animation insiders are quick to point out that the early to mid 80s were a time of uncertainty thanks to organizations that insisted that most all cartoons were merely cleverly disguised advertisements designed to push toy-lines and yet its tough to argue the success of programs such as He-Man and the masters of the Universe, Thundercats, Transformers, and G.I. Joe. As a kid of the era, I wasn't complaining; after all, the cartoons were great source material for the action to continue in toy-form. Disguised advertisements or the inspiration for hours of imaginative play? Blurred is the line. But I digress. The reason you are likely reading this is to ascertain a better feel for Warner Brothers' recent DVD release of the 1986 hit cartoon series Silver Hawks.
From Rankin Bass, the individuals responsible for the wildly popular Thundercats series, Silverhawks was created to act as a follow-up with a slightly different dynamic and setting without straying too far from the animorphic roots that made its predecessor so successful. To begin with a confession, let me state for the record that I was not a fan of the show when it was new and nor did I have any of the corresponding toy line. Memory fades as to what series managed to distract me directly but I'm leaning toward Transformers or G.I. Joe. I did however manage to catch it on a rare occasion of channel surfing (after all, we did have only four to chose from at the time) and I recall thinking that it was similar in look and feel to Thundercats (a show that I did enjoy greatly).
Looking back there were a few things that didn't sit right back then and still manage to cause a cringe even now: For one thing the tagline "Partly Metal and Partly Real" never sounded quite right to me. Of course it was easily dismissed at age ten but these days I've come to realize that the little scientist in me must have been offended by its suggestion that metal is, for whatever reason, not real. Perhaps partly metal and partly human would have been a more scientifically correct wording or, and yes I know kids would have really hated this one: "Partly metallic while still maintaining biological characteristics" would have trumped them all.
Anyway, taglines aside, the show may have shared its animation quality and voice actors with Thundercats, the actual structure was a bit askew as well. Doing away with all of the unique fantasy elements that Thundercats brought to the table, Silverhawks focused a bit more on the science fiction side of things (even if the science was continually overrun by the fiction). Our heroes are, for lack of a better term, cyborg cops sent into space to do battle with a gang of intergalactic villainous mobsters. Even if we take that at face value (and even some Trekkies may have a hard time swallowing that one), there was nothing particularly engaging about the abundant cast on both sides of the coin. The gruff leader of the good guys was a Telly Savalas wannabe with some gold plating and a robot lens/ eye occupying half of his baldhead. Below him was perhaps the most generic good guy in the history of animated television in the form of the one-dimensional QuickSilver, a guitar-wielding, mohawk-sporting colonial Bluegrass, the male & female twin duo of Steelheart and Steelwill, and a coppery colored mute alien youngster creatively named The Copper Kid. Okay so maybe I'm exaggerating a bit- Copper Kid could communicate with a strange combination of English buried beneath a digital effect with some whistling thrown in for good measure.
The bad guys had a lot of potential that was, sadly, lost to either the restrictions of children's programming of the time or a simple overload of the production staff as it was later admitted that Silverhawks was actually sold into 65 episode syndication before the first episode of Thundercats even aired (a show that would go on to run a whopping 130 episodes itself).
The show's producers realized that if it wasn't broken, no need for repairs and kept the villain formula very close to its Thundercats baddies counterparts (Mon-Star's transformation bit, for example, is not at all unlike Mum-Ra's). Unfortunately much of the cast is completely devoid of any sense of personality. Take for example the intimating mechanical humanoid bull, Mumbo Jumbo, or the robotic assassin Buzzsaw- unlimited potential, terrible on-screen presence. These examples may actually fall into the rare category of toys being far cooler than the animated characters they attempt to emulate.
Cast aside, the story structure was usually quite basic: Mon-Star hatches up some ridiculous scheme to conquer the galaxy, the Silverhawks get wind of it and thwart his efforts without any real violence or confrontation to speak of. Each and every plot basically ends the same with the villains escaping to scheme up their next corrupt ambition while the heroes laugh off their folly in failing to get the job done. This is especially disappointing considering the very first episode (Origin Story) actually opens with some potential as Mon-Star has been apparently imprisoned for his crimes on the Penal Planet only to become exposed to the radiation that not only transforms him but allows him to break out (and take his buddies with him). Unfortunately, this bit of plot potential fades out immediately after and returns only momentarily in Episode 7, The Backroom.
For the most part the story falls victim to many of the same pitfalls and shortcomings that plagued earlier shows like Superfriends and Filmation's Masters of the Universe: One-dimensional characters, plots simplified to the lowest possible degree, wacky weapons (a guitar that jams lethal music notes and a corresponding key-tar wielding female). Side note: For those of you either too young to remember (or old enough but blocked the memory out), a key-tar is a synthesizer that was worn over the shoulder and played like a guitar so that keyboard geeks could get the kind of recognition usually reserved for the lead guitarist. If nothing else the 80s was a period that prided itself on looking out for the nerds in society.
Perhaps the biggest deviation from the Thundercats formula, however, would have to be the setting itself. Yes the eternal good versus bad (or in this case cops versus mobsters) takes place almost entirely in space. While this may have sounded appealing to the show's writers at the time considering the fact that space is infinite and all, in actuality it doesn't work very well at all on screen (a lesson Kevin Costner would learn much later on in filming his epic failure Waterworld). See it turns out that the backdrop for the action is, in many instances, as important as the action itself. Suffice to say, constant battles over a the drab background of space (blackness and stars) never really captivates the viewer the way a canyon battle or romp through the fortress like Thundercats did (even if the show's artists did try to use a lot of blue paint in attempt to break up the monotony of space).
Worse still is that the physics of space are inconsistent and downright inaccurate about 95% of the time. A crime that could be forgivable in children's animation if not for the closing of each episode with a quiz for the viewer about events and true science of our solar system. I can just imagine what Dr. William A. Gutsch Jr. of the Hayden Planetarium (who provided the scientific Q&A for the show) must have thought at the near-constant depictions of humans soaring through the vacuum of space without helmets, planets being a stone's throw apart, or evil space mobsters cruising around in convertibles (top down, solar wind blowing through their hair). Perhaps it's better that we don't know his exact sentiments after all!
If you've gotten this far and think that I'm being mercilessly cruel to what was ultimately intended to be good clean fun for kids, I'm just having some fun with it. Having just dropped $30 on this four-disc DVD compilation myself, I would have been sorely mistaken had I expected purchasing the equivalent of The Discovery Channel's Greatest Moments in animated form. This is mindless entertainment from a simpler time when children (well, most of them anyway) didn't worry about the nuances of science or physics. Partly metal, partly real, all that mattered was that they battled evil while your Pop Tarts were still warm.
Enclosed in this compilation are four discs containing the first 32 episodes of the show. Three of the four contain unique disc art while the fourth is dual sided to make room for a sweet little documentary/ commentary on how our metal friends came into existence and why they worked well as toys.
If you happen to be an astrophysicist looking for some conversation starters with the guys at work, perhaps you should look elsewhere. For nearly everyone else, this is cleverly disguised toy advertising at its best and the stuff of nostalgic induced dreams.