Thursday, April 7, 2011

Descent into Nostalgia

As a kid growing up in the late 70’s/early 80’s, I was part of an era that (alas) proved to be short-lived: The era of the Saturday Morning Cartoon. I still remember going to bed on Friday with the excitement and anticipation of the morning to come- with its HOURS of entertainment. These days, the Saturday Morning cartoon has largely disappeared- I mean, when you have literally entire networks devoted to cartoons, why limit yourself to just one morning. Plus, with on-demand programming and DVRs, kids can watch cartoons pretty much any time they want. As a person who loves having all this entertainment at his fingertips, I can’t complain- but I can still look back with nostalgic eyes on an experience that is unique to my generation.

So what (if anything) does this have to do with Star Wars? Well, the influence Saturday Morning cartoons had on my imagination was powerful and started long before I’d even heard of a ‘role-playing game’ or (in some cases) before Star Wars even existed. Looking back on these shows, I find the sources of a lot of my inspiration and imagination- despite the fact that these cartoons are (mostly) so incredibly hokey when viewed with adult eyes.

In this post, I will discuss the cartoon series that had the most impact for me and maybe even talk about how the ideas in these shows could be incorporated into a Star Wars setting- or heck, into role playing ideas in general. So, without further ado (and in no particular order), here are my favorite Saturday Morning Cartoons:

Johnny Quest (1964- I saw it in re-runs in the 70’s)

Giant. Robotic. Spider. Eyeball. Seriously, I remember seeing this episode when I was REAL little. The concept behind JQ was awesome, especially for a young boy who could project himself into Johnny’s situation. Who WOULDN’T want to have their own supersonic jet? Even if they DID have to fight the occasional lizard-man. Oh, sure, there are the amusing modern notions about Dr. Quest and his relationship to his ‘bodyguard’ Race Bannon (to say nothing of the term “Master Race” being used), but for its time, and even in retrospect, the concept of a Super Scientist and his team taking on odd threats around the world is great. Hell, I could easily see such a character existing in the Star Wars universe- but.. well, with the recent “Venture Brothers” parody, even I would probably have to laugh at the stereotypical implications.

Space Ghost (1966- Again, saw it in re-runs)

When I see him now, I can’t help but relate him to the goofy late-night talk-show host he has become in modern times. But in his day, Space Ghost was pretty darn cool. He was a superhero- only in space. No, literally in space, without a space suit! With his power-belt and armbands he could shoot freeze rays and blast rays and all kinds of other rays (okay, so maybe things got out of hand at times…) Unfortunately, he also had the obligatory teen sidekick. Or in this case, Sidekicks- and their pet monkey. Even as a kid, I never related to these characters as anything other than a nuisance. I watched the show to see Space Ghost- these characters never allowed me to ‘project’ myself onto them, at least not in the way Johnny Quest did. Why? Because they were annoying and useless. JQ knew judo! As far as incorporating SG into Star Wars? Uh… well, certainly not as written. But a lone avenger cruising around in his stealth “Phantom Cruiser”, fighting against the minions of the Evil Empire? Yeah. I could see that. Heck, you could even make him a pirate of sorts, known for his ability to seemingly ‘disappear’ as he strikes out against tyranny.

The Herculoids (1967- 70’s re-runs)

Another oldie but a goodie. The Herculoids was pretty far out and I loved every minute of it. Here you had a family (Mom, Dad, Son) living on a weird barbaric world with a group of ‘pet’ monsters that included a laser-shooting dragon, a giant stone gorilla, an armored, multi-legged rhinoceros that shot exploding rocks out of its horn and a pair of amorphous blob things. Each week, they’d battle some menace- sometimes a ‘native’ of their world, but more often a villain seeking to conquer or use it for some nefarious purpose. So, its more than a little ‘gonzo’ for a Star Wars setting, but with the right group of characters it could be interesting. Imagine some rebels fleeing the Empire, they are chased to a remote and barbaric planet and cornered, only to be helped out at the last minute by THIS odd assortment of locals. Yes, the Herculoids would certainly make an interesting rebel ‘cell’.

The Superfriends (1973)

You know, looking back on it now, I fail to see how I could ever have liked this show. I mean, seriously- you had all these Superheroes (and villains), but for the most part (due to the constraints of children’s programming) they could rarely use their superpowers! They certainly couldn’t use them to (gasp!) fight! So, what do you get? A lot of people wearing capes and doing…not a whole lot. Even so, as a kid, I imagine the concentration of so many ‘famous’ heroes all in one place was enough to draw me in- even if they DID have the obligatory ‘teen sidekicks’- and (at least in one incarnation of the show) a monkey! I’ve already spoken about possible incorporations of DC heroes into a Star Wars setting, so I won’t again- and I doubt if ANY of the plotlines of this series could be used- they were usually just…idiotic. I mean, in one episode they had people get ‘lost’ in alternate universes. What did they do? Well, they decided to send teams to ‘search’ the alternate universes. Like.. the ENTIRE universe. It wasn’t like they were on the same planet or even the same solar system in alternate universes, they were scattered all over the place. And how were they ‘searching’ you ask? Well…by flying around and looking, of course. Right. So…good plan.

Scooby Doo/Speed Buggy/Josie and the Pussycats (1969- 70’s reruns)

I lump these all together not only because they all followed similar formats, but because they had a lot of crossovers as well. Of the three, however, Scooby Doo was by far my favorite. For a young kid, it had just the right mix of scares and fun to make it different from just about anything else, cartoon-wise. Plus, who could forget all those awesome 70’s songs they played during the inevitable chase scenes. Looking at the series with adult eyes I still find a lot of redeeming features. The monsters and the settings were very imaginative and actually quite well represented even in the sparse ‘economical’ background art Hanna Barbera was known for. Amusingly enough, a LOT of the plotlines of the Scooby Gang could actually make for some cool adventures in a horror RPG setting. I mean, what if all those monsters WERE real and not just guys in suits or video projections? Heh, a friend of mine has run (and played in) a couple of adventures in a game called “Scooby Doo Cthulu”, where ‘the gang’ runs into a mystery that is all too real. I myself have taken the concept of one of the more recent Scooby Doo movies (Zombie Island) and used it in a horror campaign. It actually works quite well. As far as how it could fit into Star Wars? Well, I’d always considered a ‘post Empire’ campaign revolving around a team of folks (Jedi + Others) investigating supernatural threats to the New Republic, a kind of X-Files meets Star Wars mash-up. A lot of the plots from Scooby Doo could work in this. Oh, I would also be remiss in not pointing out that Daphne was a fox. And so were Josie and her pussycats. I mean…as far as cartoon people go.

Battle of the Planets (1978)

AKA “G-Force” or “Gatchaman”, BotP was my first real introduction into the world of Japanese anime. Coming hot on the heels of the release of Star Wars, this cartoon had all kinds of cool stuff- a giant spaceship that could turn into a giant flaming bird; a team with cool bird-motif outfits- and each with their signature ‘weapon’ and ‘vehicle’. And they fought all manner of giant robots and monsters and what have you. I’d be hard pressed now to tell you the exact plots of ANY of the episodes (I haven’t seen them for decades), but the visual style stuck with me. Again, I could easily see G-Force in a Star Wars setting- perhaps minus the whole “Phoenix transformation” of the ship. Here you’d have a group of young people designated as defenders of their homeworld and equipped with its latest technology. Unfortunately, with the coming of the Empire, they are defeated and forced into operating as a resistance cell- though still equipped with their ship, vehicles and weapons. They could be used as NPC allies of the players or even just as ‘background’ color, describing yet another of the odd ‘cells’ the Rebellion recruits in its campaign against the Empire.

Star Blazers (1979)

AKA “Space Battleship Yamato”, Star Blazers was also released shortly after the original Star Wars movie. Adding to its ‘mystique’, I remember it was broadcast on a channel out of Chicago (I was living in Western Michigan at the time). And that channel would only come in when the planets and magnetic poles were in the correct alignment. Thus, I only ever got to watch it sporadically- which only made me WANT to see it more. At the time, I thought there was nothing cooler (well, except Star Wars, of course). Here you had giant space battleships duking it out. Starfighters, robot tanks, space marines, laser pistols- you name it. Plus there was the fact that characters DID die in the series- something that NEVER happened in contemporary Western cartoons. As with G-Force, the style of this series struck me a lot more than the story itself. The Argo itself was an awesome design, as were many of the starfighters and other vehicles shown. It was just the thing to feed my craving for MORE space-fantasy goodness. Again, looking back, the plotlines were very simplistic and (in the English version at least) the characters shallow and almost childlike in their reactions to things. But even so, there is a lot to admire here- and a lot of ideas to steal- both visually and plot-wise. In Star Wars, what if a rebel crew was assigned to a recently refurbished old battle wagon and given a ‘quest’ to reach some planet on the far-side of the Galaxy- or even OUTSIDE the Galaxy. What if they were hounded every step of the way by an entire Imperial Fleet or even an alien fleet. It could be the basis of an entire campaign or mini-campaign.

Tarzan (1976)

This was one of the earlier “Filmation” series that seemed to dominate Saturday morning cartoons for quite a while. I remember being impressed with this cartoon when it first premiered- the people in it were animated using the ‘rotoscope’ technique and the effect was quite realistic (for the time). Unfortunately, within a few episodes I realized that the same animations were used over and over in each episode. This was fine, but…well, the same animations were used over and over in ever OTHER Filmation series that came out afterwards- which started to get really old, even to a kid. But this quibble aside, the Tarzan stories were entertaining enough- involving lost cities and monsters and the dreaded “Bo Mangani!” ape men. Of course, Tarzan had a monkey sidekick, but I can forgive him, since in his case, a monkey actually makes sense. As far as translation to Star Wars goes, Tarzan could be an interesting NPC for a mission to a remote jungle world- though some care would have to be taken that he doesn’t overshadow the players- I mean, Tarzan is a complete badass afterall.

Flash Gordon (1979)

Speaking of using the same animations over and over again…Yep. Flash Gordon was another Filmation series and shared a lot of the same ‘stock’ animations as its ‘sibling’ series. Despite this, I loved the overall look of this series. The whole ‘rocket ship with fins’ motif was well done- as were the numerous monsters and races of Mongo- from the Lion Men to the Lizard Women to the Hawk Men and Arborians, they all had distinct looks to them. Ming’s robotic ‘Metal Men’ were awesome, skeletal looking things, made all the better because they could actually be destroyed by the ‘ray guns’ that the heroes used (see, it was okay to kill robots, just not people). And of course there was Princess Aura and her Witch-Women- awesome. I have long thought that Flash Gordon would make a GREAT mini-campaign within a Star Wars setting. Imagine a remote star-system ruled by a Sith Lord (Ming), who keeps the denizens of the planet and its surrounding moons constantly fighting each other in order to maintain his power. Into this volatile situation are dropped a team of Rebel operatives hoping to topple Ming and free the planet. The overall storyline of the cartoon series would for the blueprint for this campaign- all it would require is a bit of tweaking.

BlackStar (1981)

Another Filmation series- and more use of the same stock animations. For whatever reason, I never managed to catch this show as often as I would have liked- perhaps it just wasn’t played in re-runs enough. The concept here is very ‘old-school’- in the vein of the various ‘sword and planet’ pulp sci-fi stories (like the Warlord of Mars). Here was have an astronaut (Blackstar) marooned on an alien world, teaming up with a group of oddball natives with varying powers and taking on a scheming evil overlord. While I could have done without the annoying “comic relief” hobbit-like characters, I had to admit that having a Dragon-Horse would be awesome. Boiled down to its essence, the plot of this show was quite similar to Flash Gordon, with an ‘earthman’ striving with natives to overthrow an evil warlord. It could be run in much the same way within a Star Wars setting, though overall I like the ‘Scope’ of Flash Gordon a lot more.

Godzilla (1978)

This Hanna Barbera series was a favorite of mine. I remember when I’d go to the beach or to one of my friend’s pool- I’d go underwater and roil up the surface with splashing and bubbles, then rise out of the water, 40-stories tall- ROAAAR! IT’S GODZILLA!!!!! (*in a light tone* and God-Zoooooo-ky!). Yeah. Godzooky. Godzilla’s ‘Nephew’. Ahem. Right. Well, I loved it at the time! Give me a break. I was a kid. The concept was fun, too- turning Godzilla into a ‘good guy’ for once, called upon by the crew of an exploration ship to solve various mysteries and battle (bad) giant monsters around the world! But, for as much as I loved it then, I really can’t see a way to incorporate this series into a Star Wars setting without making it REALLY hokey (like the show). But Godzilla himself- and the whole idea of giant monsters, well…that could make for an interesting and unique Star Wars adventure! Imagine if one of these beasts got loose on Coruscant! Much carnage would ensue as people try to escape and/or destroy the beast.

Jana of the Jungle (1978)

This female version of Tarzan was part of the Godzilla ‘power hour’ or some such. I remember the animation wasn’t QUITE on par with the Filmation Tarzan series, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. I especially liked Jana’s white Jaguar companion- Ghost. And okay, I liked her little… marsupial squirrel thing pal as well. Again, I was a kid. Give me a break. Jana could be incorporated into a Star Wars setting in much the same way as Tarzan, though it would probably strain belief a little to have BOTH characters in the same universe. So it comes down to whether you want a dude in a loincloth or a chick in a fur bathing suit. I’d vote the latter, but I’m sure that’s just me.

Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (1981)

There were a couple different comic-book hero series in the heyday of Saturday Morning Cartoons (The Hulk, Batman), but this is the one that stands out in my memory. Spiderman, Firestar and Iceman made a pretty neat team. And while ‘older’ eyes see the dialogue as somewhat hokey, I loved it at the time. I also loved the fact that these characters operated within the wider Marvel universe, thus you got ‘guest stars’ in the form of the X-Men, Captain America, etc. etc. Great fun. I’ve spoken before about incorporating superheroes into Star Wars, so I won’t go into it here. Suffice it to say that I think it can be done, as long as your players are onboard with the idea.

Dungeons & Dragons (1983)

Duh. Of course I liked this cartoon- even if the series DID abide by the usual “no violence” rule. I mean, yes, just once I would have liked to see Hank fire that energy-bow of his for REAL, but… meh. The stories were fun, though- and usually pretty creative. I also enjoyed seeing the various monsters (including quite a few of the really ‘weird’ ones from the Fiend Folio) brought to life in animated form. Being so directly linked to D&D, however, I’d be hard-pressed to ‘tranlate’ the series to a Star Wars setting. But that doesn’t preclude pulling a select story or two from the whole. I mean, Venger would make a pretty good Sith, afterall.

Dragon’s Lair (1984)

I loved the video-game, even though I sucked at it. The cartoon was fun to me because of its ‘gimmick’ of presenting the viewer with a series of choices right before going to commercial break. When the show resumed, it would show you what would have happened if Dirk took choice A, B or C. Apart from that, though, I don’t remember a whole lot about the series. Again, as with Dungeons & Dragons, this is really more of a ‘fantasy’ thing than a Star Wars thing- and truth be told, none of the Dragon’s Lair stories stood out enough for me to remember if they’d be good or bad in a space fantasy setting. In a more GENERAL way, however, imagine you have an Evil Star Dragon (a race from the Star Wars RPG)- perhaps with Force powers. Wouldn’t he be a fun villain to use? And why NOT revive the whole trope of a “Knight” traveling to a remote Dragon’s Lair to rescue a captured princess. It could work. It could work well, I think- and with a combination of magic (the force) and technology, you could probably re-create a lot of the death-traps used in the video game in a (somewhat) plausible manner. Heck, I might just try this one of these days.

Thundarr the Barbarian (1980)

This was, by far, my most favorite Saturday morning cartoon. It combined elements of Fantasy with Science Fiction and even post-apocalyptic themes. I mean, they said it right in the intro: “A world of savagery, super science and sorcery.” And you can’t tell me that this cartoon WASN’T influenced by Star Wars. I mean the hero wielded a ‘Sun Sword’ (lightsaber); one of his sidekicks was a ‘Princess’ and the other was a very wookiee-like ‘Mok’. Even so, the setting was so gonzo and original that I never saw the Star Wars trappings as a ‘cop out’. I still remember the one episode where a tribe of Amazons was operating out of their secret, ocean-side base inside the Mount Rushmore monument. This was especially amusing to me, considering the fact that Mount Rushmore was practically in my backyard in South Dakota (geographically speaking). The world of Thundarr seems to me to represent the kind of bizarre, cross-genre world represented in the Rifts RPG. At some point, I’d love to run an entire campaign in this kind of world (though not using the Rifts setting/rules). As far as translation into Star Wars goes? Welll… not so much. Though you probably could steal the storylines from various episodes- turning the Wizards into various Sith Lords or other Dark-side force users.

Galtar and the Golden Lance (1985)

By the time Galtar came out, I was getting a bit old for Saturday Morning Cartoons- or rather, the cartoons of the era were increasingly childish in my eyes and held less appeal. Galtar was a throwback to the ‘good old days’. It reminded me very much of Thundarr in many ways. Though by no means ‘complex’, I remember the storyline of the series as being quite well thought out, especially for a Saturday morning cartoon of this era. Alas, I don’t remember enough of it to recall how or even if the plotline could be easily translated to Star Wars, but I wouldn’t doubt that there are some good ideas to ‘mine’ in the series.

Droids (1985)

And last but not least, the Droids Cartoon. I was surprised at just how much I liked this show. I expected it to be a completely ‘kiddified’ Star Wars series (like its contemporary “Ewoks” series). It was that, to an extent, but also had quite a bit to like for the older Star Wars fan (like myself). Set in the years between the prequels and the original trilogy, the series followed the exploits of R2 and 3PO as they bounced from master to master and adventure to adventure. In one incarnation, the droids are working for a pair of Speeder racers, in another they’re assisting an explorer in finding a fabled lost treasure. In both cases, the stories are (when you look past the kid-appeal goofiness), rather solidly thought out. The villains and other characters are likewise unique and memorable- Admiral Screed, for one, was an awesome villain. Heck, they even had Boba Fett appear in one episode. I don’t need to bother ‘translating’ these stories into Star Wars, of course, but if a GM wanted, he could use the stories for his OWN characters and have two pretty long ‘mini-campaigns’ pre-written.


  1. I loved "Thundarr" "Flash Gordon" (Princess Aura "bounced" when she moved, for crying out loud!) "Jana" (which is impossible to find) and the Spider Friends show. Yeah, it looks cheesy today, but I was glued to my TV. "Johnny Quest" was amazing as well. I loved "Speed Buggy" and "Scooby Doo" was a staple of Sat. morning.
    Ahh, what memories. I may just run some S.D. Cthulu soon...maybe at Mage Spring Con. If I make it down to FL, I'll definitely run.

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  3. I'm from the same generation and I watched a lot of those shows too - I loved Thundarr. My brother and I had to take turns every Saturday controlling the TV because we didn't always want to watch the same cartoons. But were both huge fans of Superfriends so that was the common show no matter who had control. In my memory I seem to think there was a bit more violence than your blog describes. Of course we are talking about 70's subdued cartoon kiddie violence, but still.

    Onr thing that springs to mind is this episode where this Dr. Frankenstein-ish guy makes this Frankenstein monster, but the twist here is that he "steals" the powers of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman and puts them in this monster. Even though those four iconic heroes are left weak and confused, they think of way to absorb their powers further and place them in Robin, making him into this Super-Robin that also had the powers of the four heroes. Then high up in the sky, Robin fights and defeats the Frankenstein monster. I'm not saying it was an extended brawl or extremely brutal or anything, but there was still some physical conflict that technically counts as violence, IIRC.

    I actually did a little research about the many different Superfriends seasons last year. I chose what I estimated would be the best DVD set by my memories of the show and bought it as a future gift for my son when he gets to the appropriate age (he is still less than 2 now). I got the season with the Legion of Doom ("rogues gallery" villain-group) and additional heroes such as Flash and Green Lantern because I seem to remember really enjoying that year (1978-sh?).

    So I guess I'll find out in a few years how the show stands up to my memories (not that I expect to enjoy it now, but I mean I'll find out how much 35 years has warped my perception of it). If I think of it I'll come back here let you know what I think of the "conflict-content" or the show in general then!