BraveStarr served as a premature exclamation point to the glorious sentence that was Filmation, the studio that enriched our childhoods with quality programming such as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. True, He-Man's weathered the ravages of time about as poorly as the rubber bands that held the legs on his signature line of action figures, rendering my once proud collection as truncated as a post-'Nam Lieutenant Dan, but that won't stop us from taking this journey. Together.
What's all of this then? Check out the first episode of The BraveStarr Compendium for a bit of background on BraveStarr and a breakdown of the ratings system.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is unquestionably Filmation's most recognizable and enduring property, and an eventless episode has made this the ideal time for me to highlight the parallels between MotU and its successor (minus the success), BraveStarr. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was actually the pioneer of a disconcerting trend, in that it was a program tailored to an existing action figure. Mattel commissioned Filmation to create a series based around a generic muscly doll in fur underoos, and the result was one of the more successful properties of the 1980s. BraveStarr bucked that trend to an extent, as it was originally conceived by Filmation when the character Tex Hex, created as a sort of 'villain of the week' for their Ghostbusters series, so captured the imagination of Filmation creator Lou Scheimer that he built an entire space western world for him to terrorize. This legitimately interesting article grants a good deal of insight into the economic relationship between animation and toy production in that era, and how that relationship fundamentally shaped what BraveStarr would become. The article (published in 1986) mentions that the launch of the BraveStarr brand was expected to net Filmation in the neighborhood of $200 million. In reality it resulted in the studio's dissolution. So what went wrong?
The easy answer is that BraveStarr simply isn't any good. But have you seen He-Man lately? Breaking Bad it is not. Both shows are filled with lazy animation, grating voice acting, painfully generic characters, and spoon-fed life lessons. The shows are nearly identical, save for the setting. The 'Old Space West' of New Texas supplants Eternia's 'Space Swords and Space Sandals' fantasy world, but virtually nothing else changes. Not convinced? Here's a graphical aid I cooked up to illustrate what I have deemed the Magic Hat Principle (MHP):
I hope this helps to illustrate just how derivative many of the distinguished denizens of New Texas really are. Marshal BraveStarr himself amounts to little more than a re-branded He-Man, and his Masters of the Universe aren't much more lovingly designed. J.B McBride is a thinly disguised Teela, Fuzz replaces Orko as the insufferable comic relief, and Skeletor receives a purple paint job and a fu manchu. They didn't even bother to alter his villainous crossbone insignia. And things don't stop there: Sandstorm/Beast Man, Vipra/Evil-Lyn, Sorceress/Shaman... I could probably find a MotU foil for every character to appear on the scorched surface of New Texas. To me it isn't so much an appreciable dip in quality that doomed BraveStarr, but rather a plummet in imagination and a crippling tendency to play it safe. Rather than building this new world from the ground up, Filmation felt that throwing cowboy hats on familiar characters was the sure bet. It's not hard to imagine an aging Lou Scheimer puffing on a cigar and ruminating about kids loving cowboys (Fun fact: Kids hate Westerns. Old men love Westerns.) as he rubber stamps designs marginalized for mass-production. "He-Man was popular," the aloof executive proclaims, tapping his toe to Steve Miller's classic album The Joker. "What if he were a Space Cowboy?" The whole concept is rather insulting and belies an incredibly low opinion of their demographic.
Unbeknownst to me, the Magic Hat Principle was also applied to another sacred cow of 1980s animation, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. At the height of Turtlemania in 1992, Hasbro and ABC hired TMNT comic artist Ryan Brown to create something called Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa. Never heard of it? Neither have I, but that won't stop us from taking this journey. Together. See what I did there? Because stumbling upon this series inspired the exact same baffled lack of recognition I felt the first time I encountered BraveStarr. I watched a lot of cartoons as a child. A whole lot. So to have literally no recollection of the existence of either of these cartoons struck me as very odd, especially considering the popularity of their respective progenitors. Behind Moo Mesa's garish title lies the Ninja Turtles' bastard cow-sin. Wikipedia describes the plot as follows:
An irradiated meteor struck the late 19th century Western plains creating a miles high mesa shrouded in clouds. Everything trapped on top of the mesa was "cow-metized" by the light from the "cow-met" and "evolved" into a "bovipomorphic" state. Inspired by old tales of the Wild West, this new bovine community developed to the point where they emulated that era's way of life, including the requisite ruffians and corrupt sheriffs. However, their knowledge of Wild West living was limited, and as such, many things about their culture had to be improvised to 'fill in the blanks'.
Sound familiar? Almost as if they'd attempted to slap cowboy hats on the most popular cartoon of the era. Both of these shows were also adapted into side-scrolling beat-'em-up arcade games. I'm sure the gameplay is as different as night and day, but the player selection screens offer a hilarious glimpse of bold originality at work:
The Magic Hat Principle was a pervasive force in children's programming long before BraveStarr was a twinkle in Lou's beady eye. The Hanna-Barbera assembly line cranked out in the neighborhood of 73 variations on the 'group-of-teens-with-anthropomorphic-pal-solve-mysteries' formula popularized by Scooby Doo. But seldom has the destructive potential of the MHP been so well illustrated as with BraveStarr and the demise of Filmation. It's never a good idea to show contempt for your audience. Would we stand for networks making minor cosmetic changes to their past successes and trying to pass them off as exciting new programming? Of course not. Networks would never be so condescending towards a mature adult audience.
It seems the Magic Hat Principle extends far beyond children's programming. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to view it as a driving force in modern American economics. In the wake of every successful concept is a slew of slightly altered copies. Rather than offering improvements on a concept, it seems we're often content to slap a cowboy hat on it. Far too often, we're economizing rather than innovating. Wait, isn't this article supposed to be about shitty cartoons?
Twangli is yet another intergalactic bureaucrat looking to muck things up for the good people of New Texas. This whole series is starting to read like Anti-Federalist propaganda. I wouldn't dare venture a guess as to Twangli's gender, considering it's blessed with a categorically androgenous drone. Hell, I wouldn't have been able to venture a credible hypothesis as to the character's name without a bit of detective work. My initial guess was Thwambli, but our good friends at Google let me know that it is in fact Twangli, while also bringing this pertinent information to my attention:
In Today's Episode
This installment was devoted to He-Man and the MHP for good reason. There wasn't a whole heck of a lot going on here. Faceless ranchers and faceless miners must overcome their differences in order to survive an attack from some faceless dingos. Meanwhile, The Great Gazoo is angling for J.B.'s job for some reason. J.B. exhibits the wisdom of a... judge, and unites the people in staunch opposition to dingos. And Twangli.
When people work together, they can often solve problems that they wouldn't be able to solve by themselves. It’s called teamwork, or cooperation, and it’s a very important part of getting things done. So the next time you and your friends have a problem, why not try teamwork? Try it; I think you’ll like it.
Rating: Ears of the Wolf
Let's review the lesson we learned way back in Episode 3 of this enriching and worthwhile series: Teamwork is important because often a job that needs to be done is too big or too dangerous for one person to do alone. Recapturing the kerium freighter was a big job, and a dangerous one, but because everyone worked together, we managed to do it. That’s teamwork. Try it next time you and your friends have a big job to do. You might be surprised how well it works.
Sound familiar? This is the perfect summation of the MHP. Five episodes in and we're recycling lessons. BraveStarr had but four things to teach us. This episode was totally barren of content, but it does get bonus points for the dearth of Prairie People, and for something that truly shocked me: Continuity. Normally continuity, no matter how insignificant, is the mortal enemy of cheap mass-produced programming, so the realization that Fuzz's sabbatical actually coincided with his asking for some alone time with Wuzzella [shudder] in the previous episode was nothing short of staggering. That and that alone kept this clunker out of the basement.
The BraveStarr Compendium Compendium
Professor Gruber interprets the author's drivel so you don't have to!
Gary Sinise's cruel caricature of Vietnam veterans.
And ate a lot of cheese balls. A whole lot.
You'd do well to keep this in mind.
I just don't think you're painting with a broad enough brush here. Why stop at economics? What is modern society but Hammurabi in a silly hat? Jackass.
Because comedy works best when someone holds your hand.